BONNYVILLE – On Tuesday morning, shortly after opening for the week, an Alberta Health Services (AHS) public health inspector accompanied by an RCMP officer arrived at Jennie’s Diner and Bakery to inform business owners Jennie and Camile Hamel, that their food-handling license had been suspended after failing to adhere to provincial health guidelines and the rules outlined in Restriction Exemption Program (REP).
Effective immediately, the popular Bonnyville breakfast restaurant was closed and a sign from AHS stating “An Executive Officer of Alberta Health Services has ordered these premises: Jennie’s Diner and Bakery closed until the nuisance has been removed or corrected to the satisfaction of the Executive Officer of Alberta Health Services,” was posted at all the entrances of the restaurant.
Over the summer months, it was business as normal – or as normal as it could be, Jennie Hamel told Lakeland Today.
However, when the new health measures and the REP program were implemented by the provincial government on Sept. 20, the diner continued to operate without adhering to the latest round of provincial regulations.
Staff at Jennie’s Diner were not checking for patrons' proof of vaccination, which is now a requirement for restaurants to operate dine-in service under the REP program. Prior to the restaurant’s closure, Jennie’s Diner employees were also not wearing masks while working in the establishment.
According to a notice of closure released by AHS, the business received its first notice of non-compliance on Sept. 23, shortly after the REP program took effect.
On Oct. 15, an AHS member returned to the diner with an order that indicated the business was to close dine-in services due to non-compliance. Jennie’s Diner continued to serve both vaccinated and unvaccinated patrons over the next week despite the closure notice, which was similarly posted at the restaurant's entrances.
After 10 days, AHS staff returned to notify them that the restaurant’s food-handling license had been revoked and conditions would need to be met before it could be reinstated.
According to the AHS notice of suspension, in order for the Hamel’s to continue to operate their business, they will need to implement the REP program, “including a written plan outlining the processes and requirements of the REP specific to the food establishment, to be submitted for approval by Alberta Health Services,” or end in-person dining, essentially operating through take-out or curbside pick-up as an alternative.
Taking a stand
Tuesday morning’s event is not the first run-in the Hamel’s have had with AHS’s Environmental Public Health department. Jennie’s Diner had opened briefly during a province-wide lockdown in January leading to a similar response.
Speaking with Lakeland Today in her empty restaurant, Hamel said “I never had to deal with politics all my life up until I opened my diner and then all of a sudden, I jumped headfirst into politics – I'm not enjoying it. If I wanted to be a politician or a lawyer, I would have gone to school for it. I just wanted to flip burgers and make cake,” she said.
Hamel acknowledges that allowing staff to not wear masks most likely sped-up the response to closing her restaurant, but she stands behind her decisions to defy the most recent public health measures with regards to checking for vaccine passports.
Knowing it was only a matter of time before AHS would close her business, she said, “We pushed the boundaries. We didn’t discriminate. We didn’t follow their rules.”
Hamel feels as though the vilification of unvaccinated individuals is taking priority over commonsense hygiene measures. Hamel said the driving force to operate outside of REP was “to show that we could do it safely.”
Over the last 20 months, “We've gone through it all. We've had to remove every piece of condiment from the tables, we had to disinfect and wipe everything down. We had to take names and numbers down to contract trace. So how did you go from that, to ‘we need to see your vaccine passports to come in’... They changed the rules, we went from being super strict to lenient, to back to being strict. There is no consistency,” said Hamel, who adds she is losing trust in the decision-making process.
“We run a clean establishment because I pride myself on that. So, the fact that I've been shut down because I'm not asking somebody to show me their medical records – I have a problem with that, and everybody else should too,” Hamel said, fighting back tears.
Hamel told Lakeland Today that she has reached out to other business owners, who have chosen to operate in contravention of the REP program and are also experiencing similar notices and closures.
“This is not easy, to stand up against something you don’t believe is right.”
Throughout the pandemic, Hamel has written letters to Premier Jason Kenney and other political leaders to discuss provincial health measures and what she sees as breaches against the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
With the exception of MLA David Hanson, who represents the electoral district of Bonnyville-Cold lake-St. Paul, Hamel has not received a response from any other elected official she has reached out to.
“I don't think our people in power want to hear from us. I don't think they really care about us, and I think that's where the consensus has gone because I truly feel like our government is not looking out for us anymore,” she said. “I feel that they have left us in the wind.”
Hopeful to reopen
Before attempting to regain her food-handling license, Hamel said she will take some time during the closure to renovate and clean the restaurant. She intends to keep her 10 staff members employed during that time.
Hamel is hopeful that she will be able to reopen by mid-November.
In order to reopen, Jennie’s Diner and Bakery will be required to follow the REP program or any other provincial measures in place at that time, although not by choice, Hamel adds.