Alberta Health Services locked the doors of the Whistle Stop Cafe in Mirror as the provincial government announced a crackdown on those defying public health orders.
Several AHS employees, backed up by RCMP, were at the restaurant around 6:30 a.m. Wednesday to lock the doors on café owner Christopher Scott, who livestreamed his confrontation on Facebook.
“This is disgusting. How can any single one of you sleep at night with what you’re doing right now? This is absolute insanity,” he yelled at a police officer posted outside the door of his café and others who appeared to be from AHS.
“You are protecting a government that is not upholding our rights. It is my property and I have the right to enjoy it.”
AHS says in a statement that they have “physically closed the Whistle Stop Cafe in Mirror and has prevented access to the building until the operator can demonstrate the ability to comply with not only Alberta’s chief medical officer of health’s restrictions but also requirements under Alberta’s Public Health Act and Food Regulation.”
AHS says it has been trying to work collaboratively with Scott for several weeks “to address the ongoing public health concerns at the site.
“Every effort has been made to work collaboratively with the operator as well as the property owner to come to a resolution before progressing to further enforcement action.”
Whistle Stop has not complied with mandatory restrictions “nor have they attempted to work to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission.”
In a Wednesday morning news conference, Justice Minister Kaycee Madu said “it has become clear that there are a small few who refuse to comply with reasonable and legitimate public health orders.
Madu said, “it troubles me to see the rule of law being eroded in this way. Action must be taken and action we are taking,” he said.
Public health violation fines are being doubled to $2,000 to reflect the serious risk non-compliance poses to public health and safety.
A new enforcement protocol is being introduced to tackle the most flagrant cases of non-compliances.
“This protocol will be used to co-ordinate a muti-agency response to repeat offenders,” he said, adding it will draw on local police, AHS, Occupational Health and Safety, Alberta Gaming Liquor Cannabis and Crown prosecutors.
Madu was asked why there was no apparent enforcement response to an anti-lockdown rodeo in Bowden last weekend that drew thousands. He said AHS and RCMP co-ordinated ahead of the event.
“Ultimately, they made the decision at that point in time — this is what I’m hearing after the fact — to not intervene while that particular event was going on but to employ intelligence so that they can follow up with the individuals involved in planning the event.
“I can tell you there is an ongoing investigation with respect to that particular event,” he said. “My hope is wherever that leads to the law will be brought to bear on those who had that particular event in violation of the public health measures.”
Madu was also asked to respond to reports that 40 per cent of the tickets handed out to those breaking the rules had been dropped by Crown prosecutors.
“It is regrettable that there have been cases withdrawn and dropped and we are looking at the reasons for that,” he said.
Premier Jason Kenney said help is coming for those whose job it is to enforce public health orders.
“We have given the Department of Justice direction to hire more designated prosecutors to deal with public health offences and, if necessary, to look at hiring private sector law firms to supplement the workload.”
Whistle Stop Cafe has become a lightning rod for dissent about ongoing health restrictions. Last month, the owner organized a protest that drew hundreds to the café on Highway 50. Another rally, the Save Alberta Campout Protest, is set for this weekend with a lineup of speakers including doctors and lawyers.
Since the beginning of the year, AHS has received 413 complaints about Whistle Stop Cafe. Inspectors have made multiple visits and recorded numerous violations. RCMP and Alberta Gaming and Liquor Commission have also been involved. AHS cannot issue fines or tickets and relies on local law enforcement.
A closure order was first issued on Jan. 22 requiring Whistle Stop to comply with a ban on dine-in service. It was upheld by a Red Deer Court of Queen’s Bench order in February.
Another closure order was issued on April 12 and Scott’s food handling permit was suspended. Three days later, a full closure order was issued prohibiting him from offering even take-out services because of his suspended food handling permit. On April 16, the food handling permit was suspended indefinitely.