Extinguishing the hookah bar: Edmonton ban on shisha lounges comes into effect July 1

For Sam Ramahi, who has operated his Lava Mediterranean Cuisine in Castle Downs for about 10 years, the necessity of reinventing his business might be the last straw.

Without social smoking, many businesses worry about being able to remain open

On July 1, social smoking in hookah bars and lounges will be banned in Edmonton. (CBC News)

In 2018, Edmonton's hookah bars and shisha lounges were ordered to improve their ventilation systems. A year later, they were told smoking inside their establishments would be banned as of July 1, 2020.

For Sam Ramahi, who has operated his Lava Mediterranean Cuisine in Castle Downs for about 10 years, the requirement to reinvent his business — on top of restricted operations due to COVID-19 — might be the last straw.

"I think we're going to be closing down," Ramahi told CBC News in an interview. 

Ramahi said his business, located a few bays down from a pub and a pizza place, made its name on hookah. Without it, his business doesn't stand a chance, he said.

Culture versus public health

Smoking shisha is seen as a social gathering, drawing customers of African or Middle Eastern backgrounds. It's a tradition that dates back centuries, originating in places like India, Persia and Ethiopia.

Mayor Don Iveson says city council is aware of the link between shisha lounges and a cultural practice, as well as the link between indoor smoke and public health challenges.

"In that case, council has fairly consistently come down on public health and occupational health and [the] safety principle," Iveson told CBC News

He is encouraging business owners to apply for grants the city has available to small businesses to support them through the pandemic.

In 2019, Mulugeta Tesfay launched a lawsuit against the City of Edmonton and police. (Peter Evans/CBC)

The former owner of a now-closed shisha bar believes that Edmonton police targeted the establishments for frequent inspections in a concerted effort to deter their operation.

Mulugeta Tesfay, who owned Nyala Lounge, had engaged in a public battle with the city and police in 2018, before closing the shisha bar that had been popular among Edmonton's African-Canadian community a year later. 

Tesfay has launched a lawsuit that alleges frequent and intrusive inspections of hookah bars owned and attended by African-Canadians between 2015 and 2018 were part of an overall plan to deter the operation of African hookah bars in Edmonton.

The lawsuit names former police chief Rod Knecht, current chief Dale McFee and several members of the Public Safety Compliance Team (PSCT) including Justin Lallemand, acting Det. Colin Simpson and Const. Dexx Williams. Alberta Gaming Liquor and Cannabis is also named in the claim.

As the July 1 deadline looms, many owners are struggling with what it will all mean for them. Avnish Nanda is a lawyer representing three shisha lounge owners. 

"It's kind of heartbreaking because a lot of these owners are predominantly Arab and South Asian and African business owners," Nanda told CBC's Radio Active on Wednesday. 

"This is their business, their family business. This is what's supporting themselves and their children."

He said several of his clients are also trying to figure out how this will affect their leases. Some landlords aren't renewing or are ending their contracts, he said.

"Some have been clear that your stated occupation use under the lease is a shisha lounge," Nanda said. "[And] because under the municipal ordinances you can't operate this business, you're in breach of your lease and you're out." 

Ramahi's Lava lounge was allowed to reopen under the province's Stage 2 reopening plan but hookah smoking was not allowed. 

Business, he said, is about five per cent of what it was. 

"I thought we could survive on food," he said. "But the last week, it's very bad."

With files from Min Dhariwal and Andrea Huncar