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COVID rules create confusion, anger and worry

Regional restaurants, bars and pubs facing huge challenges as they try to figure out provincial mandate
MVT Zoo Bar Innisfail
The Zoo Bar at the Innisfail Hotel. Owner Guri Gill has decided to opt for the Alberta's government's Restrictions Exemption Program but like so many others he's worried for his business. But Gill also wants to be socially responsible to do his part in battling the COVID pandemic. Johnnie Bachusky/MVP Staff

Beleaguered owners of restaurants, bars and pubs are going through a gloomy set of emotions this week as they try to figure out the Alberta government’s latest set of rules to ward off the devastating impact of COVID’s fourth wave.

And there’s plenty of confusion, anger, and worry going around as each try to figure out the best of bad choices available.

“The government has put me in a position where I don’t really have a choice,” said Danny Caria owner of Carstairs’ Villa Maria Ristorante Italiano. “They are putting me in a very, very awkward position. I’ve never been a person who discriminates. Now all of a sudden, I’m having to tell people that they can’t come in and support me.”

He said while he plans to follow the new rules, including asking guests to reveal their vaccine status, he’s not at all happy about it.

“Starting on Tuesday (Sept. 21) I will have to discriminate when I have to put signs up stating that if you are not vaccinated, please don’t come in,” said Caria, adding the new rules will also hurt his bottom line.

“I’m going to obey the law because it is my responsibility to obey the law. Do I like it? Absolutely not. You don’t put fear in people. People are tired of it.”

Gerry Neilon, owner of the Cremona Hotel, said the new rules are unfair as he expects to lose up to 60 per cent of his clients.

“This has been mandated to me. I can’t afford to lose my liquor licence but I also can’t afford not to have my clients. We are in a tough spot stuck in the middle,” said Neilon.

“I hope it’s short lived but I believe it’s going to be the way of the future.”

On Sept. 15 the provincial government announced sweeping new COVID guidelines to blunt surging positive COVID cases. Some businesses can participate in the Restrictions Exemption Program, which permits businesses, including restaurants, bars, and pubs to operate without many public health restrictions.

However, masks are still mandatory indoors. All patrons going into participating businesses must provide valid proof of vaccination, or proof of a privately-paid negative rapid test result taken within 72 hours of service, or documentation of a medical exemption.

Guri Gill, owner of the Innisfail Hotel, has decided to participate in the Restrictions Exemption Program. He said it has been difficult to survive over the past 19 months of COVID as “there is always something new” that comes and it's never good news.

Despite the ongoing struggle, Gill said it’s important for his family-owned business to be socially responsible for the community.

“We want to keep people safe,” Gill said. “It’s our responsibility.”

Just around the corner, the Fox and Hound pub posted on its Facebook page it’s also opting for exemption program.

“Implementing this program is the only way we can remain in business and take care of the people who livelihoods are dependent on their positions at the Fox and Hound,” said the Facebook notice. “We aim to do our part to help community and those working in the health-care system as they continue to carry us through these trying times.”

Mark Kemball, owner of the Innisfail Dairy Queen, is not yet ready to sign on to the exemption program. For at least a little while, he will carry on as drive-thru only.

“It’s not that it doesn’t appeal to me it’s just that I think the temperatures are pretty high right now amongst everybody, and so we decided we’d would just use drive-thru only for now,” said Kemball. “We’re going to monitor the situation and that could change in the coming weeks.”

Sundre’s Chris Vardas, owner of Cedar’s Pub and Original T’s Family Restaurant, isn’t impressed by the provincial government’s approach to pass the proverbial buck back at businesses.

“It’s ridiculous is what it is, because they’re making us once again do all the dirty work for them,” said Vardas.

“Who am I to ask people their private information if they’ve been vaccinated or not? Now when my girls ask that, people are going to be yelling at them.”

He said this additional stress will impact their mental health.

“It’s not us doing it, it’s the government mandating us to do it. That’s an issue they should take up with (the government) and not the business owners,” he said.

Ravi Vithanage, owner of Boondox Family Restaurant, said the province has put businesses in a place where no business should ever to be in.

“They (government) want to make us the bad guys,” Vithanage said. “But now we’ve been forced to ask for proof of vaccination or negative COVID test. I’m just requesting customers to not take it personal. This is not something we wanted to do.”