To some it might have looked like Lac La Biche Mayor Omer Moghrabi was eating lunch in a Bonnyville restaurant on Wednesday afternoon that was blatantly contravening Alberta Public Health Orders during a provincial public health state of emergency. But looking past the lasagna lunch special he was served at the Lakeland Grill as a table guest of MD of Bonnyville Reeve Gary Sawchuk and Bonnyville Mayor Gene Sobolewski, Moghrabi says it was a calculated risk to shine a spotlight on the frustrations of rural small business owners.
“My fellow municipal leaders requested I come down, and I don’t have problem supporting small business,” Moghrabi told Lakelandtoday.ca on Wednesday night, saying the challenges faced currently by small business owners due to provincial COVID regulations are significant and need to be highlighted “One of the biggest industries that’s being killed is small business, especially the hospitality businesses.”
Dine-in service at all Alberta restaurants has been restricted since last November when provincial health officials implemented enhanced measures to combat the spread of the COVID-19 respiratory virus. The public health order restricting food establishments from table service is enforced by municipal and provincial police and carries a fine of $1,200. Despite the law, the owners of two Bonnyville restaurants, Lakeland Grill and Jennie’s Diner, opened their doors to in-person dining on Wednesday afternoon. The Lac La Biche County mayor drove 140 kilometres to join Sawchuk and Sobolewski as part of the lunch crowd.
He hopes Wednesday's lunch date gets the attention of provincial decision-makers, and amplifies the challenges of what he calls unfair pandemic restrictions have placed on certain segments of the rural Alberta economy.
Moghrabi said the meeting was planned days before, and the risks — both health and political — were understood.
“Did they follow the physical distancing, the cleaning and how many people were allowed in? Absolutely, they followed it … They had the masks there and the tables were all kept apart, ” said Moghrabi, a strong follower of pandemic measures who fully respects the potential dangers of the virus — and fully understands that some people won’t like what he did. “Sometimes you have to step out of your comfort zone. It was a risk … but a community was asking for support.”
It’s not the first time Moghrabi and Lac La Biche County officials have stepped into the spotlight with other regional leaders by bending the laws or challenging authority. Moghrabi and other municipal councillors were part of a protest at the Alberta Legislature late last year, challenging the way provincial officials were planning to re-calculate industrial property assessments. Lac La Biche County councillors were also front and centre in the defence of doctors when provincial health officials were threatening new contract terms that affected the pay of provincial physicians. In recent months, municipal officials from across the Lakeland have banded together to call for needed changes to Alberta’s fishing regulations. The municipalities have also been part of provincial-level discussions about municipal crime, watershed management and tax dollars coming from the Cold Lake Air Weapons Range. The communities share common links and stand with each other, says Moghrabi.
“The northeast part of the province has been the hardest hit ... and the people are frustrated. Having the mayors there in Bonnyville, it was good to show that support. It was the same with the medical issue and the assessments. You are seeing the same mayors and leaders come forward supporting others," he said.
He’d do it again
While the Lac La Biche County mayor was eating lunch in a Bonnyville restaurant, food establishments in the Lac La Biche area remained closed to in-person dining. When asked if he would eat inside establishments in his own municipality if the owners purposefully ignored the current health orders, the mayor said he’d do it again. Being very careful not to emphasize he was supporting anti-government sentiment, Moghrabi instead said he is happy to support small business in any way he can during a very challenging time.
"Sometimes what you want to do is draw some attention to something bigger. That’s all it was to me," he said.
He hopes the attention he and the other mayors have received — both good and bad — will shine a light on the need to re-evaluate the restrictions on restaurants and small businesses. When small businesses have to close, but large box stores can remain open, when airlines can still operate but people can't sit together in a restaurant, and when it takes a public outcry just to get hair salons back open, the mayor says the spotlight needs to keep shining on more places.
Wednesday's lunch meeting was simply a more public view — with a side of garlic bread — of what regional leaders have been doing in weekly roundtable discussions with each other and provincial officials throughout the pandemic.
"All we are doing is sending a signal like we have been doing all along," said Moghrabi, "They shut down physical therapists, so we brought that to their attention, then the hair salons… and we brought that to their attention. We talk on these town hall meetings, we talk through our (Rural Municipal Association) with the ministers. We bring up our concerns."
Moghrabi joked that through all the hype, it was simply three municipal leaders sitting down to discuss some regional issues in a restaurant whose owners had chosen to open up for lunch.
“They invited me for a meeting. So we sat, we talked about fisheries, ID 349 … we had something to eat …” Moghrabi said. “I guess we talked a little about COVID too…”
Political stunts aside, the table-service at the two Bonnyville restaurants on Wednesday was in direct contravention of an Alberta Public Health order. The owners of both restaurant say they were not sanctioned for their actions, fined or cautioned. Jennie Hamel at Jennie’s said no peace officers came into the establishment and she was not contacted by authorities. She tells Lakelandtoday.ca that the local Alberta Health Services Health Inspector said a one-time lunch opening was acceptable, but it couldn’t happen again while the health order was in effect. The owners at the Lakeland Grill said the same thing.
Lakelandtoday.ca staff have sent a request for information about the allowances to Alberta Health and Alberta Health Services for clarity.
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