Rural Alberta businesses open for in-person dining, not following mask rules despite restrictions

Several businesses in rural Alberta are openly going against COVID-19 restrictions — one with in-person dining and another with a mask-optional policy.

In Mirror, Alta., just over 65 kilometres east of Red Deer, the Whistle Stop Café opened on Jan. 21.

The restaurant has been serving about 250 people each day. The owner says that he makes sure customers know that the business is breaking the rules.

“We let them know that they could be subject to fines,” said Christopher Scott, the owner of Whistle Stop Café. “And if they don’t leave, after they get a fine, they could be subject to arrest for obstruction of justice.

“And everybody just says, ‘Yeah… We’re with you.’”

Read more: Alberta’s hospitality industry pushes for reopening of restaurants, bars amid COVID-19

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Scott says that he intends to continue to serve customers despite the current health measures that have closed in-person services at all restaurants, pubs, bars, lounges and cafes in Alberta. Only takeout, curbside pickup and delivery are allowed.

“Let’s talk about the repercussions of not opening,” he said Monday. “So a business like mine, if I didn’t open, there’s a good chance that we would be under in less than a month.”

Alberta recorded 362 new cases of COVID-19 on Monday.

Health Minister Tyler Shandro said Monday that there is information that suggests one of the province’s 20 confirmed cases of the COVID-19 variant first identified in the United Kingdom may have been the result of community transmission

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Shandro said that the new variants are part of the reason the province is planning to keep cautious when it comes to reopening.

“We need to continue to proceed cautiously, recognizing that our health system is still under significant strain,” Shandro said. “If we’re not careful, our health-care system could be in a dire situation within weeks, and it would be very difficult to get things under control.”

Read more: Virologist says Albertans should avoid all in-person socializing as COVID-19 cases rise

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In Tofield, Alta., just under 70 kilometres east of Edmonton, the Countryside Service gas station doesn’t require customers to wear masks.

Hemla Wilson, the owner of Countryside Service in Tofield, Alta.
Hemla Wilson, the owner of Countryside Service in Tofield, Alta. Global News

“We’re unwilling to follow their policy,” said Countryside Service owner Hemla Wilson.

“I figure under common law, it should be up to the people.”

Alberta Health Services said it issued an executive order to the business. The order, dated Jan. 7, said that the business had several violations: no proper COVID-19 signage, not wearing masks or face coverings during the reinspection and no confirmation if COVID-19 mitigation measures were in place.

The business was fined $1,200, but Wilson says she won’t be paying it.

“I got fined, and as for deterring me, I refuse to pay it,” she said. “This is under a policy, and I have no contract with Alberta Health Services or the government.”

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Whistle Stop Café was also issued an AHS executive order on Jan. 22, ordering that business to “immediately close” its dine-in service. But Scott says they’ll stay open.

“[The restrictions are] a negligent decision that’s causing more harm than good. Alberta Health Services, their mandate is to look after the health of all Albertans… and there’s harm being done right now,” Scott said.

AHS says that it’s only when significant risk is identified or continued non-compliance is noted that they will resort to enforcement action.

For both businesses, they say the community has shown support for their decisions to open.

“The community here loves it. The people here love it. They love that I am doing this. We are doing this,” Wilson said.

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