British Columbia

'A difficult day': Nightclub and banquet hall operators in B.C. react to forced closures

B.C. nightclubs and banquet halls believe changes to public health orders unfairly target their industries, saying businesses have closely followed COVID-19 safety measures.

'Businesses are going to close because of this,' said nightclub industry rep

Granville Street in downtown Vancouver is home to many nightclubs that have been ordered closed by B.C. health officials. (Roshini Nair/CBC)

The order to close all nightclubs and banquet halls in British Columbia in the wake of rising COVID-19 cases has left both industries reeling. 

Jeff Guignard, executive director of the Alliance of Beverage Licensees of B.C., said Tuesday's announcement was both disappointing and frustrating.

"It's a difficult day," Guignard said after Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry announced the changes to public health orders. "Businesses are going to close because of this."

What's most frustrating, said Guignard, is that the vast majority of nightclubs were meeting or exceeding safety standards. 

"It's not those bars that are causing the cases to increase," he said. "It's not like they manufacture it in the kitchen and put it in your drink."

He blamed the spike in infections on people who think the rules don't apply to them, referencing recent media coverage of drum circles at the beach and dance parties on Vancouver's Granville Street.

A crowd gathers at a drum circle on Vancouver's Third Beach in late July. (Ryan Schaap)

"They're not coming into our establishments, or if they are, they're not lasting very long because we kick them out," said Guignard. 

While clubs and stand-alone banquet halls must close indefinitely, bars, pubs and restaurants will remain open but cannot serve alcohol past 10 p.m. Music and other background sound, such as televisions, must be lowered to conversation-level to prevent patrons from shouting to be heard. 

Henry said the amended orders were issued as "a last resort."

"We recognize that these venues have tried. We've made adjustments but there are still exposures happening," she said.

The changes come as the province reported 429 new cases of COVID-19 over a four-day period, bringing the total to 6,591. Two more people, both in long-term care, have died of the virus.

Opposite intended effect

According to Guignard, nightclubs were not operating as many might have imagined. 

Since reopening in late June, Guignard said nightclubs have essentially transitioned into lounges, with maximum parties of six seated at least two metres apart from each other.

In July, B.C. implemented new measures at restaurants, bars and nightclubs requiring all patrons to be seated (meaning no ordering from the bar) and temporarily banning dance floors. 

Guignard said the only reason cases are reported at these establishments is because the industry has done a good job of contact tracing.

A video that appears to have been taken on Granville Street shows a crowd gathering in the busy entertainment district in mid-August. (TB/Twitter)

He fears the intended effect of the new amendments could backfire.

Instead of "the relative safety of a licensed premise," people will congregate in private settings where social distancing and contact tracing measures aren't enforced, Guignard said.

"This could actually end up increasing cases in some environments."

'We're totally screwed'

Sukh Mann, president of the B.C. Banquet Hall Association, doesn't understand why the province has lumped nightclubs together with banquet halls, which are food-primary businesses.

He said the industry feels unfairly "targeted." 

According to Mann, banquet halls have enforced all necessary safety measures, including requesting patrons' contact information, limiting the number of people in washrooms and hiring added security to ensure new rules are followed. 

The B.C. Banquet Hall Association represents every banquet hall in Surrey, Richmond and Vancouver. 

Banquet halls associated with golf courses and yacht clubs have been excluded from the new order, but Mann wonders why. 

Originally, the association had asked the province for permission to operate halls at 50 per cent capacity, like restaurants. But the provincial government rejected the proposal, Mann said. 

"With operating a banquet hall the size of our facilities — where they range from 10,000 to 40,000 square feet — 50 people doesn't cut the cake."

Currently, social gatherings larger than 50 people are not permitted in B.C. 

"We're totally screwed," Mann said. "We have no way of paying our property taxes. We have no way of paying our rent ... How do we keep the lights on?"

With files from Meera Bains, Michelle Ghoussoub and On the Coast