Bars call for crackdown on de facto nightclubs breaking COVID-19 rules
There have been 2,121 COVID-19 related violations in Alberta since March
Those in the hospitality industry say there need to be more repercussions for establishments breaking COVID-19 rules and running de facto nightclubs — instead of sweeping measures that affect all businesses.
Nightclubs haven't been able to operate in Alberta since March — for obvious reasons, as Premier Jason Kenney put it at a press conference on Thursday — but there are still establishments clearing tables off the dance floor when the clock strikes 10 p.m.
Kenney said that's one of the reasons bars, restaurants and pubs have to stop serving alcohol at 10 p.m., and lock up by 11 p.m.
"Unfortunately, we've seen a growing number of violations where bars and pubs in particular have turned into virtual nightclubs," Kenney said. "It's these growing number of violations that have created the concern and caused today's restriction."
In the last two months, there were six health enforcement orders issued to establishments fitting that description in the Calgary area, some work orders and others closure orders. Only one of those orders is still active.
Some of the health inspectors' orders describe patrons dancing or singing, a lack of plexiglass barriers by the bar, or tables set up without proper distancing in place.
If everyone wants this normalcy to continue to be able to go out … it is imperative that everyone follows the protocols that have been laid out.-Ernie Tsu, owner of Trolley 5
Lounge Central was written up twice in October by an Alberta Health Services inspector.
The inspector wrote patrons were dancing next to their table, moving between tables, and in one instance, 15 people were seated less than two metres apart. According to the officer, at one point the DJ leaned over a table of seated patrons without wearing a mask over his nose and mouth.
A video posted to Central's Facebook page in September, pre-dating the health inspectors' visits, shows a group of people standing and dancing. The caption reads: "Fully packed. Busy night."
Another video, which was posted to Instagram days after the establishment reopened in November, shows a packed dance floor with no masking — except a single woman who walks through the frame donning a blue surgical mask tucked under her chin. CBC News has been unable to reach the person who shot the video to confirm when it was created.
- WATCH | Video shows a crowded dance floor at Lounge Central in Calgary. CBC News has blurred the video to protect bar-goers' identities.
Lounge Central has declined repeated requests for comment.
There have been 2,121 COVID-19 related violations since March and tens of thousands of complaints across the province, according to AHS.
But, data on nightclub-like patron behaviour isn't gathered.
In a statement, an AHS spokesperson wrote that they don't issue fines, but can "conduct enforcement activities specific to facilities not obeying guidelines set by the CMOH."
More enforcement needed, bar owner says
Ship and Anchor owner James Ballantyne said it's evident that the current system isn't working. He said these types of places are being whispered about — if you want to go out and party, people know where to go.
"I find it difficult to accept that this is not a time where it's worthwhile to break a little china if you have to, and then go out and enforce those rules," Ballantyne said. "I think it's for the benefit of a great number of people."
He said the Ship and Anchor has hired extra staff to help them comply with the public health measures. They've even had an engineer check out the bar's HVAC system.
If at any time things feel out of control, staff are allowed to shut part or all of the pub down.
Ballantyne said they have concerns about big events over the Christmas period, and are even considering shutting down for New Years Eve — because they fear behaviour that outside of the pandemic would be completely normal.
"How do you ask everyone who's used to leaping up and running around, hugging and kissing all their friends at a time like New Year's?" Ballantyne said. "How do you try to ensure that they all sit down and don't touch each other and don't walk over their tables? You know, it's almost an absurd thought."
Mussie Tedla owns Portico Lounge, which he described as a place where people sit, drink and smoke hookah. It's not a club but they do have a DJ in on occasion.
He told CBC News he was visited by Alberta Health Services in September and told to put tables over his dance floor, and to add plexiglass to the bar area — all measures that are now in place. He said when patrons sit down they know the rules, but when alcohol comes into the mix things can shift.
"When they get a little drunk, they try to move around without a mask and we tell them to wear a mask," Tedla said. "I have bouncers, security guards, my security guards tell them to … I am going to tell them, straightforward, if you don't follow the rules we aren't going to let you in next time."
He said due to the new restrictions, he's not going to make rent in November because most of his patrons come after 10 p.m.
Ernie Tsu is the owner of Trolley 5, and the president of the the Alberta Hospitality Association. He said bad actors are putting other businesses at risk and it's not right.
"For those locations, again, that are not following the mandates or ignoring the restrictions and protocols that are coming down from Alberta Health, they should be fined," Tsu said. "They should probably be shut down for a little while."
Tsu said restaurants have gone to every effort to keep employees and customers safe to stay open and continue to provide a sense of normalcy.
"If everyone wants this normalcy to continue to be able to go out, you know, even to the gyms that have been shut down right now, it is imperative that everyone follows the protocols that have been laid out by our chief medical officer," Tsu said.
The premier has said over the past nine months, 18 outbreaks were traced back to the hospitality sector, representing 0.16 per cent of businesses in the hospitality industry.
No hospitalizations or deaths are linked to those cases. But, around 65 per cent of COVID-19 cases in the province currently have an unknown source of transmission.