Winnipeg tattoo parlour defies public health orders by reopening shop

The owner of a Winnipeg tattoo parlour has decided to reopen his shop, despite public health orders requiring that his business must remain close to curb the rise of COVID-19.

Phil McLellan of The Parlor Tattoos on Main Street calls it a “financial decision.” He said he has a family of six — a wife and four children — to support and keeping his doors closed is no longer an option.

McLellan said he’s three months behind paying his shop’s rent, which costs $3,200 a month.

“I’m worried about feeding my family,” McLellan said Sunday. “A fine will take a back burner to me putting food in the mouths of my children.

“If that’s the government’s response to somebody attempting to earn a living, then that will be the government’s response,” he said. 

The Parlor Tattoos at 1404 Main St. in Winnipeg. (Walther Bernal/CBC)

McLellan said enforcement officers paid him a visit on Saturday, but so far, he hasn’t been fined or issued a notice. He said officers told him they will come back later in the week. 

“I’m scared to death … I don’t know what the government response is going to be because they haven’t responded yet,” said McLellan. “How far are they willing to take it to make an example of me?”

In an email statement to CBC News, the provincial government said current public health orders require businesses to remain closed and that enforcement may take place for any business found violating public health orders.

Push for other small businesses to reopen 

McLellan posted his decision to reopen his shop on Facebook on Thursday. He said so far, the response from customers and other small businesses have been “overwhelmingly positive.”

He and two other colleagues started a Facebook group called “Small Business Fights Back.” The group has 877 members and calls for Manitoba businesses to band together by reopening their doors in unity.

McLellan wouldn’t disclose which businesses have reopened, but said he knows of several in Winnipeg that have made the same decision as he did over the weekend. 

Inside Parlor Tattoos. The shop consists of two storefronts on Main Street and is approximately 2,000 square feet in size. McLellan said with only four chairs for clients, there’s typically no more than eight people inside. (Walther Bernal/CBC)

“I spoke to other small business owners who all express the exact same problem: they’re drowning,” he said. 

McLellan said he did receive $5,000 from the provincial government’s bridge grant, but he added that it’s hardly enough to cover rent and living expenses. 

“I think we were all sitting around waiting for somebody to do something, but nobody knew who that was going to be and I just got sick of waiting for it to be somebody,” he said.

Not fair big box stores can open, says owner 

McLellan said prior to the pandemic, his tattoo parlour had most of the protocols required to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The only change he had to make was to be more intrusive with his questions.

To curb COVID-19, he said customers can’t come inside until they answer questions about where they have travelled or whether they exhibit symptoms. If they’re eligible to come inside, they would fill out a release form, indicating their name, address and date of birth, as well as give a piece of ID for contract tracing.

For tattoos, customers typically have to answer questions on that form about whether they have any communicable diseases, he said. 

McLellan said it’s unfair that the province is allowing big-box stores like Walmart and Canadian Tire to open during this time, but a small business like his can’t.

A lineup outside the Garden City Walmart in Winnipeg in November. McLellan says it’s not fair that big-box stores like Walmart can remain open, but small businesses like his can’t. (Lyzaville Sale/CBC)

“Walmart and other stores like that, they don’t even have anybody asking those questions. People are free to come and go all day, all night, [they] come in contact with everything,” he said. 

McLellan said he’s been stringent with protocols. He said chairs are sprayed down with a sterilizer before every use and most of the equipment is disposable. If something is not, it would be put into a sealed barrier so it doesn’t get contaminated, he said.

“I understand that there’s a pandemic. I’m not a COVID denier. I’m not an anti-masker,” he said. 

“But it seems to me that if other businesses can operate safely in this pandemic en masse — thousands of people travelling through Walmart, Canadian Tire and other big-box stores — I’m pretty sure we can handle it here.”