Licensing technicalities ‘unreasonable’ for bars that must now close, pivot to takeout, association says

Chris Graves, the owner of King’s Head Pub in the Exchange District, feels like he is being tossed from the frying pan into the fire. 

As restrictions continue to increase in the hospitality industry, Graves has had to lay off 20 employees, close his doors for two weeks and return to offering takeout and delivery.

“It makes no sense. It is really painful,” said Graves. “The gut punch to us, honestly, is that we have been doing a lot of things right…. It is such an arbitrary pick of licensing.”

Graves wonders why he is being shut down while other businesses are allowed to stay open. 

Starting Monday, stand-alone nightclubs, bars and beverage rooms (which are attached to hotels) in Winnipeg and surrounding areas are closed, as are casinos, video lottery lounges and bingo halls. Entertainment facilities with live entertainment must also close. 

Businesses licensed as restaurants and lounges can stay open, but they’ll be limited to 50 per cent capacity and can only seat up to five people at a table.

Chaise on Corydon is allowed to remain open because its licence issued by Liquor, Gaming and Cannabis Authority of Manitoba is for a dining room and lounge. Owner Shea Ritchie admits the rules may be confusing but he’s not the one making them. 

Graves’s licence is in a different category.  Pre-COVID-19, he was given an entertainment licence for the King’s Head mainly to accommodate a maximum capacity of 400 — allowing people to mix and mingle, stand up with a drink, dance or play a game of pool.

Because restaurants have been working at limited capacity for the past seven months, Graves said he made the transition to operating as a restaurant, doing takeout and delivery.

Chris Graves applied for a temporary dining room licence for the King’s Head Pub in Winnipeg’s Exchange District, but is still caught up in current closures because of his entertainment licence. (CBC)

A couple of weeks ago he applied for a temporary dining room licence, which would allow him to sell liquor with takeout orders. Graves said it was approved, only to find out last Friday the licence could not be used for in-house dining. Now he has to close his doors for two weeks because his licensing still falls under entertainment.

“They consider me a bar having an entertainment licence. Even though we have been forced to operate as a restaurant for the past four months, they are penalizing us for no good reason,”said Graves. “It is so unfair.”

Calls for help

The head of the Manitoba Restaurant and Foodservices Association, Shaun Jeffrey, is calling on the province to help businesses stay open as they are being pummeled with mounting restrictions.

Some bars and lounges made the transition to takeout and delivery during the pandemic, he said. But what is happening now defies logic.

“It’s unreasonable to say you have been operating as a dining room because of COVID to keep people safe, but because of a technicality and you being classified as a bar, we are going to close you down. It’s horrendous,” said Jeffrey. 

Jeffrey wants to see the Manitoba government offer financial help. 

Shaun Jeffrey, executive director of the Manitoba Restaurant and Foodservices Association, says he’s concerned the closure rate will spike if the shutdown of some bars and establishments is extended. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

“They need to come to the table and say we imposed these restrictions and we are going to help. Six other provinces have stepped up with industry specific assistance for restaurants because of the massive toll it has taken on us. The stress is through the roof,” said Jeffrey.

He’s worried the eight to 12 per cent closure rate for restaurants in Manitoba will jump another 10 per cent if this shutdown goes beyond two weeks.

A provincial spokesperson issued a written statement to CBC, saying the province has been in regular contact with the industry throughout the pandemic letting members know what support programs are available. 

“The Manitoba Gap Protection Plan has provided $56.5 million in grants to more than 9,400 individual businesses which includes nearly 370 restaurants and foodservices businesses,” the statement says.

But Jeffrey is at a loss to know who the province has been in regular contact with in the industry.

“We have contacted the premier, the ministers. Written letters. We have been shunned, ignored. These decisions are made with zero feedback from our industry,” said Jeffrey.

He is disappointed the hospitality industry found out about the two week closure at the same time the public was notified Friday afternoon.

Manitobans have been supportive

Jeffrey says while the industry feels left out in the cold by the province, he has nothing but words of praise for Manitobans.

“Customers have supported us in ways you wouldn’t believe. We are so proud of them and so grateful. They continue to support us even though the province continues to put mounting restrictions on us,” said Jeffrey.

The association launched a social media campaign Monday called Save Manitoba Restaurants. It will be handing out free masks with the hashtag on it.

As for Graves, he feels the industry is being targeted. 

“We have become the province’s scapegoat. We are seen as the poverty industry because so many work for minimum wage or slightly more and it is easy for them to just shut us down,” said Graves.