Can Dawson City's iconic Westminster Hotel survive the COVID-19 pandemic?

It's an iconic Yukon watering hole, a local institution, and a vibrant community hub in Dawson City — and like many small businesses these days, The Pit's future is far from certain.

'I'm in charge of keeping this place alive, and keeping it serving the community,' says owner Paul McDonagh

A game of shinny outside The Westminster Hotel — aka The Pit — in Dawson City, Yukon, earlier this month. Like many small businesses, The Pit's future has been thrown into doubt by the COVID-19 pandemic. (Submitted by Paul McDonagh)

It's an iconic Yukon watering hole, a local institution and a vibrant community hub in Dawson City — and like many small businesses these days, its future is far from certain.

The Westminster Hotel — a ramshackle, century-old building painted a garish pink and known locally as The Pit — closed this week. Owner Paul McDonagh is not sure if the doors will ever reopen, even when the COVID-19 pandemic is over. 

"Some points of each day I am thinking, OK, I better call my lawyer because I'm going to have to declare bankruptcy and shut everything down," he said. "But I'm trying to stay positive, and I'm trying to push as many buttons as I can."

The territorial government ordered all bars in the territory to close indefinitely last Sunday. It's one of several measures introduced in recent days to control the spread of the coronavirus in the territory. There were three confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the territory as of Wednesday.

McDonagh understands the need for social distancing. But he worries about his business — and his normally tight-knit, sociable community. 

Inside the tavern, which, before this week, opened daily at 9 a.m. (Submitted by Paul McDonagh)

"You just walk down the street, nobody here. Everybody's sitting at home, watching TV," he said.

"There's nobody around. That's really not a good thing for this town. It's not a good thing for the territory."

Tourism is Dawson City's lifeblood, and the town's population explodes every summer with visitors and hospitality workers. That's not expected to happen this year.

'Your first beer in Dawson'

Before this week, The Pit would open its cozy tavern every morning at 9 a.m.

"We're your first — and last — beer in Dawson," its website proclaims.

It's one of a handful of places in town that stays open year-round. Rumour has it that if it were to close for any period, local authorities simply wouldn't allow the old and weathered building to reopen — but McDonagh says that's not true.

"I don't know where that myth came from. It's a good one," he said.

Winters in Dawson City can be pretty cold and dark, but it's always warm inside The Pit. (Submitted by Paul McDonagh)

The Westminster Hotel has been in operation since the 1930s and according to the hotel's website, parts of the building are even older. Over the years, the building has reportedly housed a grocer, a boarding house, a diner and an ice cream shop.

McDonagh said it's important to keep the business going, not just for his family but for the town. He calls The Pit a "pillar of the community."

"This is where people come for a drink, or to meet friends, or to get help, or to borrow a tool, or to borrow money — whatever it is. This place is here to help whoever needs help," he said.

Dawson Mayor Wayne Potoroka says there's no question the Westminster Hotel is something special.

"It's a Dawson icon. It's recognizable in our community, it's recognized right across this country," he said.

But Potoroka is also looking at the bigger picture of his community right now, and he's worried. All businesses are suffering, he says.

'No one's happy to see any business close,' said Dawson Mayor Wayne Potoroka. (Submitted by Wayne Potoroka)

"Psychologically, The Pit closing — yeah, it sucks," he said.

"But [also] all the other businesses that had to shutter their operations because of the recommendations we're living under…. No one's happy to see any business close."

Morale 'tanking, fast'

McDonagh's now trying to figure how to get a loan to see him through the coming months, but he's not yet certain what his liquor-selling business would qualify for. He's also trying to think up a project at the hotel that might help employ some local people, at least temporarily.

"I think such a project is necessary because the morale up here in town is tanking, fast," he said.

"There's no money coming in here now into town, really. And I think it's in everybody's interest to generate some activity here."

McDonagh may own the Westminster Hotel but he says he considers it more of a "stewardship." 

"I'm in charge of keeping this place alive, and keeping it serving the community, and I'm on the verge of not being able to do that any longer," he said.

"It's an important place. It's important to me and my family, of course, it's important to Dawson City, it's important to the territory."

Written by Paul Tukker, with files from Dave White and Chris Windeyer


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