Bakeries, diners and bars serve up defiance to Alberta's vaccine passport program
Enforcement under unprecedented pressure, Alberta Health Services says
The tables at Karen's Homestyle Cooking in downtown Peace River, Alta., sit empty.
Owner Karen Greaves would rather turn diners away than participate in Alberta's vaccine passport program.
"I'm just totally done with it. From Day 1, I was done with it," Greaves said Thursday.
"This is not about health and safety, it's about control."
Greaves is convinced the restrictions are a part of a conspiracy to infringe on personal rights.
She maintains that COVID vaccines are an "experimental drug" that pose a threat to human health.
Public health experts have repeatedly stressed the safety and efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines. The provincial government website notes that every approved vaccine has met Health Canada's strict standards for safety, quality and effectiveness.
Inspectors with Alberta Health Services ordered her diner closed last week.
The restaurant — the menu features spaghetti, liver and onions and steak — is one of at least 14 establishments issued closure orders or permit suspensions this month for failing to comply with the province's restrictions exemption program.
All have been found in contravention of restrictions in place since Sept. 20 that require them to screen customers for proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test, triggering renewed warnings from public health experts about the continued risk posed by the pandemic.
Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta's chief medical officer of health, urged restaurants to follow the rules during a news conference this week.
"You may think, as a small operator, that the choices you make don't make a difference in terms of the overall impact of COVID on the population," Hinshaw said. "But I would say to those operators, you do matter.
"The actions that you take matter, not only because the risk of infection events is greater when those restrictions are not followed, but also it sets a tone that others see."
Watch: Dr. Deena Hinshaw urges compliance
Greaves said that after the regulations came into effect last month, she continued to serve unvaccinated diners her homemade cupcakes, pies and brownies.
She knew she was risking steep fines, but was taking a stand against the guidelines.
Albertans who violate public health orders can be fined $2,000. Additionally, courts can impose penalties of up to $100,000 for a first offence.
If you don't want to come to my restaurant because you're vaxxed and you don't think unvaxxed is safe, well, stay out.- Karen Greaves
"I was asking for passports, and if they said, 'I don't have it,' I said, 'Go sit down' because I'm not discriminating against anybody," Greaves said.
"If you don't want to come to my restaurant because you're vaxxed and you don't think unvaxxed is safe, well, stay out."
Following an inspection, the restaurant was ordered to close for dine-in services on Oct. 21.
Greaves said she is now offering takeout only.
'A perfect storm'
The defiance that some restaurant owners are showing is borne out of misinformation about COVID-19, said Dr. Lynora Saxinger, an infectious diseases specialist and associate professor at the University of Alberta.
"I think it's really an unfortunate commentary about the kind of information environment that we're in, because there's no doubt that the measures help reduce infections and help reduce hospitalizations," Saxinger said.
Restaurants that operate without proper screening may contribute to the spread of infection, she said.
"People who are not vaccinated and have fallen prey to that misinformation might be more likely to go to places that do not follow rules. So that could actually put together kind of a perfect storm," Saxinger said.
AHS has received 42 complaints since Sept. 16 about COVID infractions at Bake My Day in Beaumont, near Edmonton.
Owner Jen Foster was ordered to close her dining room on Oct. 5 for failing to screen customers and maintain distancing between patrons.
"Since the pandemic, every rule and guideline that they put in place, I followed to a T," owner Jen Foster said. "But, you know, deep down in my heart, when that [restrictions exemption] program rolled out, I knew that it wasn't right.
"I knew it wasn't right to discriminate against people who had made a personal medical decision."
On Oct. 8, the bakery's food permit was suspended. A week later, the business was served with a cease-and-desist letter and prohibited from operating in any capacity. Then on Oct. 27, Bake My Day was cited for operating without a permit.
Foster continues to operate. She said she is "trying to comply" with the rules by removing the dining tables. She said she needs to meet with inspectors before she can get her permit back.
"I have to put food on my family's table," Foster said. "I just figured either one way or the other, I'm going down, so I might as well go down, you know, doing what I know is right."
The pandemic has placed unprecedented demand on inspectors and Alberta's complaints-driven enforcement system, AHS spokesperson Kerry Williamson said in a statement to CBC News.
About 97 per cent of complaints from the public are resolved through education, Williamson said. He said that only 280 executive-officer orders related to COVID infractions have been issued since the pandemic began.
"Our first step is always education. It is only when significant risk is identified or continued non-compliance is noted that AHS resorts to enforcement action."
I know there's COVID, but I don't believe it's a pandemic.- Willie Peters
When the vaccine passport system was introduced, Willie Peters continued to serve unvaccinated diners at the Espresso House in La Crete, near High Level.
On Oct. 6, AHS suspended his permit for failing to comply.
AHS documents show the restaurant has been repeatedly cited for contravening COVID orders, dating back to January of this year.
Most recently, on Oct. 19, the business was cited for remaining open with a suspended food handling permit. AHS confirms the permit was reinstated Oct. 21.
"I know there's COVID, but I don't believe it's a pandemic," Peters said. "I think that's all made up."
- This story has been updated to make it clear that health authorities say approved vaccines are both safe and effective.Nov 01, 2021 12:12 PM MT