When the owner of Mexican eatery La Roca learned he had to close due to a public health order from the province, he didn't have enough time to inform his staff – rather, he got a call from a health inspector the day after the order was implemented.
"We had staff showing up for work on Tuesday without any formal notice that we would be closing," Wade Salchert told the Free Press Wednesday.
The Smith Street restaurant doesn't open Mondays, and the call made it clear it would have to close immediately because La Roca normally operates under an entertainment facility licence, in part because it typically hosts live music. The licence, which is issued by the Liquor, Gaming and Cannabis Authority of Manitoba, allows facilities that present live entertainment to serve liquor.
There are five other licences offered by the regulator, but only businesses that have an entertainment facility licence will have to shut down for the next two weeks.
Beyond that, there was no further explanation to Salchert as to why his venue had to close. Live music has long been shut down because of COVID-19 restrictions, and the reduced hours put in place because of those restrictions meant La Roca was operating, essentially, as a restaurant.
"Nothing is different in my establishment than say Earls, or Joey, or Moxie's. We’re operating with the exact same restrictions," he said.
Closed for businessClick to Expand
Fifteen establishments have been forced to close due to a public health order requiring any business with an entertainment facility licence to close until 11 p.m. on Nov. 2:
Palomino Club (436 Main St.)
Royal Albert Arms (48 Albert St.)
Spades Lounge and Nightclub (575 Portage Ave.)
The Good Will Social Club (625 Portage Ave.)
The Garrick Centre (330 Garry St.)
Pyramid Cabaret (176 Fort St.)
Fame Nightclub (279 Garry St.)
La Roca (155 Smith St.)
Shannon’s Irish Pub (175 Carlton St.)
OV Club (108 Osborne St.)
The Underground Live (114 Osborne St.)
Toad in the Hole Osborne Street (155 Osborne St.)
King’s Head Pub (120 King St.)
Club 200 (190 Garry St.)
Sonix Bar and Grill (423 McMillan Ave.)
Salchert, who has had to furlough dozens of staff members, said there’s no real evidence behind closing some establishments and not others based on their licence. Even at establishments that have had recorded COVID-19 exposures — La Roca had a potential COVID-19 exposure in late September — it is "nonsensical," because exposures are occurring at an accelerated rate in all sectors.
"There’s no good reason, there’s no evidence to support the closure of any licenced establishment right now," he said.
"I think it was a mistake. I think someone behind the wheel made an error. And I think that should be rectified."
It’s not the closure of businesses that Salchert finds unfair, it’s the specific targeting of only a few businesses that does not make sense to him.
"At the end of the day, if closing is going to protect the public, protect my staff, protect my friends and family – fantastic. Let’s close, but let’s close everything, let’s close every restaurant, let’s close every beverage room. Let’s do this smart," he said.
Sonix Bar and Grill had only been making about 10 per cent of its usual income when assistant manager Samantha Zhao got the news that the restaurant would have to close.
"Our major income is from the pool tables and the pool players that will come, have a drink and play a few games. Without pool tables, there’s no desire to come down," she said.
The restaurant hasn’t had any known exposures or COVID-19 cases, has been following sanitation and distancing protocols, and Zhao said having to lose the last 10 per cent of the eatery’s income is unfair.
"People could’ve still come to play VLTs. People could’ve still come to visit," she said. "We had friends, we had clientele who would visit if we could open."
Just down the street, restaurants that provide the same experience can continue to generate income over the next two weeks.
"Look at the exposures on Corydon Avenue, but everybody on Corydon Avenue, pretty much, they’re open."
The decision by the province to single out one licence for further COVID-19 restrictions was disappointing to the Manitoba Restaurant and Foodservices Association, said president Shaun Jeffrey.
Small biz summitClick to Expand
The city will hear from business owners directly impacted by the pandemic during a virtual summit on Thursday.
This year's Mayor's Small Business Summit is being hosted online by the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce and it will feature breakout sessions where participants will be connected directly to senior administrators.
Mayor Brian Bowman said the event gives city officials a chance to hear directly about issues impacting the business community.
More than 1,000 small businesses have been connected with the city through the summit during the last five years.
"The liquor licences in Manitoba are very archaic and very old. They’re very hard and convoluted to understand," he said. "So, as an operator, there’s a lot of misconception, a lot of confusion over what is required."
Jeffrey said the association has heard concerns from restaurant owners in the city that reflect those expressed by Salchert: COVID-19 has changed the way businesses operate. It means those that may not typically qualify for a dining room licence are operating as dining rooms, but are forced to close for two weeks because of services they can no longer provide.
"The province’s analogy on mixing, mingling, no social distancing was not being followed, but a lot of these businesses that are affected by this have had no issues with that whatsoever because they’ve been operating as dining rooms," he said.
The association is holding an online campaign to encourage people to support local food establishments.
The announcement made Wednesday that the province would raise the fines levied to individuals and companies that violate public health orders was welcomed by the association.
"We’ve been asking for additional enforcement, especially individual enforcement, to be both implemented and increased for some time," he said.
"Restaurants, bars, lounges don’t spread COVID. People do."
Malak Abas is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.