Yellowknife pub owner alleges harassment by COVID-19 enforcement officer

The Monkey Tree Pub's owner says she’s being targeted in part because she refuses to comply with certain requests made by the public health enforcement officer, which she feels are unreasonable.

N.W.T. government says it 'stands by the conduct of our officers'

The Monkey Tree Pub in Yellowknife. 'We are outspoken and don't necessarily agree with everything that he is suggesting or requesting that we do,' says the pub's owner, after receiving a $5,175 ticket from a public health officer. (Sidney Cohen/CBC)

After receiving a sizable ticket from the Northwest Territories' COVID-19 Coordinating Secretariat, the owner of The Monkey Tree Pub in Yellowknife alleges she's being "targeted," and "harassed and intimidated" by one of the agency's enforcement officers.

Pub owner Jen Vornbrock wrote in a Dec. 30, 2020 letter addressed to the territorial health department and Environmental Health that a specific officer "has on many occasions behaved aggressively and inappropriately towards both the owners and the staff of The Monkey Tree and Stake [Restaurant]." 

As a result, she wrote, she was banning the officer from her premises.

Vornbrock told CBC this week that she feels she's being targeted in part because she refuses to comply with certain requests made by the officer, which she feels are unreasonable, such as requiring her staff to wear masks. 

"We are outspoken and don't necessarily agree with everything that he is suggesting or requesting that we do," said Vornbrock, adding that she has explained to the officer why she won't follow some of his directions. 

Vornbrock said she was given neither a verbal nor a written warning before being ticketed. The fine on the ticket amounts to $5,175. 

As the only business in the Northwest Territories so far to have been charged for non-compliance with Phase 2 of the territory's Emerging Wisely public health order, Vornbrock believes she's being treated unfairly. 

"You cannot tell me that we are the first business in the past 10 months that has broken some kind of restriction," she said. 

Business owner can't ban public health officer

In response to Vornbrock's Dec. 30 letter, Premier Caroline Cochrane told Vornbrock in an email that the government can't comment on specifics related to matters before the courts, but that any public health officer appointed under the Public Health Act is allowed to enter any premises to conduct an inspection. 

In the email, which was obtained by CBC, Cochrane writes that "pursuant to s. 10 of the Act, it is an offence for any person to obstruct a public health officer who is attempting to enter an establishment in order to conduct an inspection."

According to the ticket, a photo of which was sent to CBC, the fine is for failing to comply with an order to "take or refrain from taking any action to decrease or eliminate risk," as per section 25 (1) of the N.W.T.'s Public Health Act. The ticket doesn't state the specific actions The Monkey Tree did or didn't take.

Allegations 'categorically false,' says gov't

Government spokesperson Mike Westwick said the government won't comment on this specific incident "to respect the court process."

However, Westick did say that the allegations against the public health officer were "categorically false.

"We stand by the conduct of our officers and have no reason to believe they have been anything but professional in discharging their duties," said Westwick. 

He added that officers aim to educate before resorting to more punitive measures.

"This means unless there was imminent danger or a blatant violation, they would begin with an education – providing information and guidance to help bring an individual or business into compliance. From there, verbal and written warnings, and charges are available as tools for public health officers," he said.

"Except in extraordinary instances, we would not issue a charge to a business without first educating."

'Am I supposed to tackle them?'

The Monkey Tree's ticket is dated Nov. 14, 2020. Vornbrock said she was told it's related to a liquor inspection from that date. 

That liquor inspection report, a copy of which she emailed to CBC, says the pub's dance floor was operational, which would go against the current phase of N.W.T.'s Emerging Wisely plan. 

But Vornbrock maintained that there are tables on her dance floor and that it isn't open. To be sure, she added, this wouldn't necessarily stop guests from dancing.

"If someone gets up and starts dancing beside their table, am I supposed to tackle them?" said Vornbrock. "I don't see in the order where people can't dance. I see that you can't have a dance floor." 

If someone gets up and starts dancing beside their table, am I supposed to tackle them?- Jen Vornbrock, The Monkey Tree Pub owner

She believes the ticket is actually related to her pub being over capacity. The liquor inspection report says there were 132 people in The Monkey Tree at the time of the inspection. 

While the pub's normal capacity is 205, said Vornbrock, under COVID-19 restrictions, it's been reduced to "125 patrons plus staff." She takes that to mean she's allowed 125 guests, as well as however many staff she needs. "Seven people on staff on a Saturday or a Friday night is not out of the question, right?" she said.

Vornbrock said she's made several changes to her operations during the pandemic to reduce risk and help keep her customers and staff safe.

However, she said, there's no evidence of community transmission of COVID-19 in Yellowknife, so she doesn't see a need to make her staff wear masks.

"It is a very high-intensity job. You're not standing still." she said. "You wouldn't ask somebody to wear a mask for eight hours on a treadmill."

Westwick confirmed that servers aren't necessarily required to wear masks. 

The ticket sets a court date of March 2. While Vornbrock hopes to resolve the matter before that date, she is willing to fight the ticket in court.