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AHS drops case, pays legal fees of Alberta café that reopened in spite of COVID-19 rules

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The Whistle Stop Café in Mirror reopened in January in defiance of the public health orders. Alberta Health Services ordered the café to close and took its owner to court, but recently dropped the case — and even paid the restaurant's legal fees. Sarah Ryan looks at why and what that could mean for others who break the rules – Feb 23, 2021

Alberta Health Services has stopped pursuing legal action against a small town café for defying the province’s public health orders — and has even covered the owner’s legal fees.

In January, the Whistle Stop Café in Mirror, Alta., reopened for dine-in services, even though it was not allowed due to COVID-19 restrictions.

The cafe’s owner, Christopher Scott, was taken to court by AHS after he chose to keep his business open, even though it was ordered to close.

AHS sought compliance and an injunction to have the court uphold the closure order.

But recently, AHS dropped the case, saying in a statement: “Upon the easing of restrictions, and given that dine-in services are now permitted, AHS is no longer pursuing compliance of the executive officer order through the Court of Queen’s Bench.”

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On the Whistle Stop Cafe’s Facebook page, Scott wrote that the decision was a win for those who are resisting COVID-19 restrictions.

The decision could have broader consequences in terms of how Albertans respond to the pandemic.

“If they see people defying the guidelines and the orders with impunity, then I think there’s going to be a danger that more people will not comply,” explained Lori Williams, an associate professor of policy studies at Mount Royal University in Calgary.

“They’ll just say, ‘Why should I follow the rules if other people are not?'”

It’s the lack of enforcement that Lorian Hardcastle said could be concerning. She’s an associate professor in the faculty of law and Cumming School of Medicine at the University of Calgary.

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“Those public examples of unenforced defiance I think can have the effect of prompting others to join in,” she said.

Read more: Hundreds of workers disciplined by AHS after 2020 wildcat strike: union

In addition to backing off the court proceedings, AHS also footed the bill for Scott’s defence.

“AHS agreed to pay costs (that) are commonly awarded against a defendant on a discontinuance to cover costs that they have incurred to defend against the application,” spokesperson Kerry Williamson wrote.

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“I was surprised, though, to learn that they had paid his costs, given that when this enforcement activity commenced, he was in violation of public health laws and quite blatantly so,” Hardcastle explained.

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She said it’s one thing to stop the legal proceedings because the rules changed but another to compensate the defendant.

Williams added this is another example of the rules changing after Albertans publicly oppose them.

“If a business can defy the orders and then the government changes the orders to make it no longer a violation, again it raises questions about why the restrictions were in place,” she said.

Read more: Hinshaw urges understanding, compassion as Alberta confirms additional 267 cases of COVID-19

Scott still faces two charges from the RCMP, however, for being in contravention of an order of the medical officer of health. Those could come at a cost.

“It’s difficult to predict what a judge might do in terms of those fines. Certainly they are higher for a business,” Hardcastle explained.

Another central Alberta restaurant owner, Carlos Siguenza from the Noble Fox in Bashaw, also faces charges from the RCMP for defying public health orders.

Read more: March held to protest COVID-19 restrictions raises concerns about racism in Alberta

With more protests and resistance regarding restrictions, Williams said the provincial government needs to step up enforcement and follow through to not lose control of the pandemic response.

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“They’ve got to be clear about what the guidelines are, and clear that they take them seriously. Otherwise, there’s a danger of increased non-compliance and resentment from those who are compliant.”

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Mirror is about 40 kilometres east of Lacombe in Lacombe County.

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