Edmonton

AHS drops legal action against central Alberta cafe that contravened COVID-19 orders

Alberta Health Services has discontinued legal action against the owner of a restaurant in Mirror, Alta., who operated for weeks in defiance of public health orders intended to curb the spread of COVID-19.

Whistle Stop Cafe in Mirror has been at the centre of battle over enforcement

With restrictions in-person dining now lifted, AHS is no longer pursuing compliance against the Whistle Stop Cafe in Mirror, about 70 kilometres northeast of Red Deer. (Scott Neufeld/CBC)

Alberta Health Services has discontinued legal action against a central Alberta cafe owner who operated for weeks in defiance of public health orders intended to curb the spread of COVID-19.

With restrictions on in-person dining now lifted, AHS is no longer pursuing compliance against the Whistle Stop Cafe in Mirror, a hamlet 70 kilometres northeast of Red Deer. 

The Whistle Stop has been at the centre of a high-profile legal battle over enforcement and a public debate over the strains that pandemic-related health orders have placed on small business. 

Cafe owner Christopher Scott had been issued a court order after he refused to close the restaurant's dining room, contravening a ban on in-person dining introduced in December as cases across the province soared.

'No order to enforce'

In a statement Wednesday, AHS spokesperson Kerry Williamson said health inspectors no longer need the courts to enforce compliance.

"The order was no longer relevant, given the restrictions on dine-in service have been lifted," Williamson said. "There's essentially no order to enforce."

Scott still faces two charges under the Public Health Act for contravening an order from a medical officer of health, RCMP said Wednesday. He is scheduled to appear in court in Stettler on April 22.

Under the act, a first-time conviction can result in a fine of up to $100,000. Convictions for subsequent offences carry fines of up to $500,000.

Scott began serving dine-in customers in late January. For weeks, the cafe operated in contravention of public health restrictions.

AHS issued a public health order to Scott on Jan. 22, closing the restaurant to sit-down business.

Despite the order and numerous warnings from health inspectors and RCMP, Scott refused to comply. He said opening was the only way to save his ailing business, and urged other struggling restaurants to follow suit. 
Christopher Scott, the owner of Whistle Stop Cafe, says he wants his concerns about the public health restrictions to become part of the public record. He plans to contest his charges in court. (Scott Neufeld/CBC)

In response, AHS applied for an emergency injunction to force the closure and cease in-person dining. A judge in Red Deer granted the injunction on Feb. 3, citing the potential harm of contravening public health orders.

Five days later, the Alberta government relaxed some restrictions. Dining rooms across the province were allowed to reopen.

Scott will be reimbursed for some of the costs he incurred during litigation, Williamson said. 

"AHS agreed to pay costs which are commonly awarded on a discontinuance to cover costs that they have incurred to defend against the application," he said.

"AHS will continue to uphold all current public health orders and restrictions, with the goal of protecting the public." 

Owner 'looking forward' to court battle 

Scott said he considered trying to continue the legal battle so his concerns about the restrictions — and the role of Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta's chief medical officer of health — would become part of the public record.

"AHS hasn't provided me evidence that the restrictions they imposed in the first place were valid in the first place," he said Wednesday.

"The order comes from an unelected official who is largely unaccountable for that action and doesn't suffer the consequences of the restrictions that she imposes. Anytime an unelected official can direct the government to infringe on any kind of rights, that's a problem."

Scott plans to contest the charges he faces under the Public Health Act and is looking forward to his day in court. He said he doubts that provincial health officials had grounds to enforce the rules they had imposed. 

More than a dozen other restaurants across the province also opened their dining rooms, risking steep fines to serve patrons. Charges have also been laid against an Edmonton-area pastor whose church continued to hold Sunday services despite enforcement orders from AHS.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Wallis Snowdon is a journalist with CBC Edmonton focused on bringing stories to the website and the airwaves. Originally from New Brunswick, Wallis has reported in communities across Canada, from Halifax to Fort McMurray. She previously worked as a digital and current affairs producer with CBC Radio in Edmonton. Share your stories with Wallis at wallis.snowdon@cbc.ca.

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