Whistle Stop Cafe owner Christopher Scott vowed on Monday to continue serving sit-down customers at his Mirror restaurant in defiance of Alberta Health Services regulations.
Scott is taking a stand because he feels restaurant owners like himself are being unfairly targeted by health restrictions that allow businesses such as grocery stores and other big chains such as Costco to welcome customers while owners of smaller businesses must turn away patrons who want to sit down for a meal.
The restaurant owner first planned to serve seated customers last Thursday as a one- or two-day protest. But he was motivated to take a bigger stand after hearing Alberta’s chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw talk last week about the decision to extend health restrictions past the Jan. 21 deadline.
“Everything changed when I heard Dr. Hinshaw say there was no foreseeable end to these restrictions,” said Scott, who has operated the café just east of Mirror on Highway 21 since 2019.
“To hear Dr. Hinshaw to say that and then to say we are all in this together, it made my blood boil.”
Scott decided then to keep his doors open as long as he can.
“We’re open because I just said ‘enough is enough and it’s time for a change,’” he said on Monday as a steady stream of customers came in to eat or pick up food.
Up until last Thursday he had been following the rules. But as weeks dragged on, he could see his bank account dwindling and wondered if he was going to be able to keep paying his only remaining staff member.
Scott is happy that grocery stores and others allowed to see customers are open and hundreds of people still have their jobs. But it is obvious to him that the risk of COVID being transmitted in that setting is much higher than in a restaurant or other small business.
“They’re open, I’m not. They’re thriving. And I’m at risk of losing my business. That’s not fair.”
Scott’s stance has struck a chord with many in the province.
“The support we’ve been getting since we started this has been overwhelming,” he said. “It’s unbelievable. Some of our posts have over 160,000 views.”
An update he put on Facebook had close to 900 engagements, as of Monday afternoon, almost all supportive.
“There is the odd angry face and the odd death threat mixed in there as well.”
Scott is not surprised by how people have reacted to his challenge.
“I knew we were going to have the support of small business and the majority of Albertans. Having this place I have the opportunity to talk to a lot of people and 99 per cent of the people who come through my door they are of the same mindset that the rules that AHS has imposed on restaurants and other small businesses similar to ours are unfair.”
While there are long-term health repercussions from COVID, lockdowns and other restrictions are also having a big impact on mental health. People have lost jobs, can’t support their families are being driven to suicide.
“I have a musician friend who has lost seven of his friends from the time (the pandemic) started until now through suicide.”
An AHS health inspector came by late last week and issued him a verbal warning and posted a notice of closure on his diner. AHS had not been back on Monday as of noon but he expects to hear from them again.
An RCMP officer stopped by in the morning but took no action, the business owner said.
If he continues he may have his health permit rescinded, which would mean his liquor licence is no longer valid. As well, he could face fines that could cost him thousands of dollars a day.
Despite those risks, he is not going to give up, he said.
Asked about Whistle Stop on Monday AHS said that “at this time restaurants are permitted to operate under the current public health restrictions but are limited to takeout, delivery or curbside pickup only.
“AHS continues to monitor the situation with RCMP.”
Corrina Fischer, a friend, volunteered to help Scott out at Whistle Stop.
Like him, she was dismayed that health authorities did not provide any reassurance that businesses would be able to reopen any time soon even though medical experts have said the chances are low of the virus being spread in restaurants and similar settings.
“We can stand for truth. It takes courage and it takes strength but we can do it.”
Fischer, too, has seen how the lockdowns and restrictions have had a severe impact on the mental health of so many, including seniors. She knows of five suicides, including a despondent father of three, who lost his job and took his own life last fall.
“We have to do something, and it starts here.”