Nova Scotia’s chief medical officer didn’t say why the province’s public health order was recently changed to allow bars and restaurants to extend their drinking hours despite ongoing incidents of establishments breaching COVID protocols.
The amended public health order issued last Friday allows establishments to serve alcohol an extra hour until 1 a.m., with alcohol removed from tables by 2 a.m., and return to their normal closing time. Up until Friday bars and restaurants were required to close at 1 a.m. Dr. Robert Strang, who last month voiced concern over large numbers of young people being reported at bars in Halifax, signed off on the order.
The Restaurant Association of Nova Scotia (RANS) has been lobbying for the extensions. Establishments were notified of the changes by email Thursday afternoon, a day before they came into effect.
Jonpaul Landry, director of licensing and registration for the province’s alcohol and gaming division, authored the email saying that compliance inspections are regularly happening and pointed to isolated instances of establishments violating the public health order.
Those include “masks not being worn, plastic masks instead of non-medical masks, patrons sitting at a bar without shield/barrier, karaoke, chairbacks at tables not being six feet apart from the adjacent tables, and dancing.”
The letter states that the regulatory body is working with licensees on an “educational basis” but that it will be moving to “an enforcement action” for those that continue to be in non-compliance.
Neither public health nor Service Nova Scotia, which is responsible for alcohol and gaming, would provide any record of public health order inspections being done in the province. There is also no record of compliance checks pursuant to the order on two of the Nova Scotia government's online public databases containing food establishment inspection reports and disciplinary notices for liquor and gaming license holders.
Katherine Fierlbeck, a Dalhousie University political science professor, said Nova Scotians have a right to know which establishments are in compliance with the public health order and that copies of the inspection reports should be made public.
"Surely it’s not unreasonable for Nova Scotians to have a sense of how well these measures are being enforced because it does go back to public safety," said Fierlbeck, an expert in health policy. “If it’s not about public safety then why have these measures at all?”
Marla MacInnis, a spokeswoman for Dr. Strang and the Health and Wellness Department, said in an email that Dr. Strang is not responsible for enforcing protocols under the public health order. MacInnis said the department amended the order in consultation with RANS and other licensed establishments.
"We appreciate the industry’s ongoing commitment to public health protocols as we work towards striking a balance between living with the disease and protecting ourselves as best as we can," said the statement.
The Herald inquired why Dr. Strang chose to relax rules on alcohol serving rather than considering other options, such as allowing increased occupancy in bars and restaurants but he did not address the question.
Fierlbeck said the option of increasing occupancy is equally worthy of consideration given the epidemiology; there remains only a handful of COVID cases in the province, and that there has been no reported evidence of community spread in months.
"We have a good mask policy and there’s compliance with the policy and we have border closures and quarantining rules in place," said the professor. "If these things are working why then can’t we look at increasing capacity for restaurants?”
"Why longer hours rather than denser occupancy?"
The latest changes to the order had been a priority for RANS, said its executive director Gordon Stewart. Allowing bars and restaurants an extra hour to serve alcohol will provide much-needed revenue for an industry that’s been hammered by the pandemic, he said.
The group had also lobbied public health to relax rules around occupancy, specifically proposing that the maximum number of people to a table be doubled to 20. But he said public health has rejected the proposal.
"We’ve been told not to ask again," he said.
Stewart also couldn’t say what establishments have violated the public health order but insisted that the vast majority are in compliance. He said some establishments have been fined already while others have been issued warnings.
He said restaurants and bars should be afforded some leeway given that they are fast-paced work environments and mistakes are bound to be made.
"But people who would do it purposefully, those are the ones you want to see tagged," he said.