Before reopening after a two-month COVID-caused shutdown in May, Doc Willoughby’s underwent several renovations. Now, in October, new restrictions are again causing headaches for pub owners. (Michael Rodriguez - Capital News)

Kelowna watering holes battle tough liquor restrictions

Local establishments are calling for regionalized restrictions, warn of potential closures of iconic bars and pubs

After a month of new liquor restrictions issued by the government of British Columbia, Kelowna watering holes are calling out for help.

On Sept. 8, provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry ordered a ban on alcohol sales in restaurants, bars and pubs after 10 p.m., as well as requiring them to close by 11 p.m. if the kitchen doesn’t remain open. In addition, Henry ordered nightclubs and stand-alone banquet halls to shut down completely.

With local bars and restaurants trying to get back on their feet after having to close their doors for several months due to COVID-19, the new restrictions have knocked many establishments back down, losing out on prime hours after 10 p.m.

Kelowna’s Social 242 Lounge and Grill on downtown Kelowna’s Lawrence Avenue is one of those establishments. With a business model that teeters to those looking for a club-like vibe, Social opens its doors at 5 p.m. and is usually open until late, raking in the bulk of its sales after 10 p.m.

“The crummy thing for us is we don’t open for lunch and generally it starts getting busy around seven-ish, so there’s really only three hours of work for us since we can’t serve booze past 10,” said Social 242 owner Daniel Mulgrew.

“We’re noticing our 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. customers are showing up, but our normal 9 p.m. customers just aren’t because there’s really no point to come for just one hour.”

And as the clock strikes 10 p.m., bar and pub owners are beginning to notice a nightly parade to the nearest liquor store, as they’re currently allowed to stay open until 11 p.m.

“The business essentially gets driven underground. There’s no contact tracing at house parties and there are no precautions,” said Dave Willoughby, owner of Doc Willoughby’s on Bernard Avenue. “That seems to be a real disconnect between Dr. Bonnie Henry and the provincial government, and the hospitality industry. They don’t understand how it works.”

Willoughby’s frustrations recently made waves in Victoria after he added a message to the bar’s receipts calling on his patrons to ‘Vote that f*cker out’ in reference to B.C. Premier John Horgan and the provincial government’s handling of the hospitality industry throughout the pandemic.

(Doc Willoughby’s photo)

“It certainly got a strong response,” he said, adding Doc Willoughby’s was forced to register as a third-party advertiser with Elections BC, but the message has since been removed from the receipts.

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Now open just 25 hours a week, Mulgrew said the restrictions are taking a toll on his staff, stating Social has very seldom had turnover, until now.

“I feel really bad for my staff. They’re in a really hard position. Almost all of them are looking for second jobs now. There hasn’t been any action from the province in regards to helping out the hospitality industry.”

“I’ve already had one staff member leave because they had to find more hours.”

While Doc’s may have more hours to go around for its staff, being open 12 hours a day, 7 days a week, servers are leaving their shifts with lighter-than-usual pockets.

“It’s one thing to have your shift cut in half, but it’s another thing altogether to work as a server and not have any customers and not have any tips,” said Willoughby. “It’s quite a bit worse for them.”

Mulgrew is an owner who takes pride in his staff and as a token of appreciation, he decided to close shop for a week and take his staff on a trip to Tofino.

“With the curfew right now we’re only open 25 hours a week, so it kind of seemed like a good time to jet out of town and explore somewhere else. They’re my family I want to make sure they’re looked after as best as possible.”

When asked about remodelling to be open longer, Mulgrew said his establishment’s location doesn’t have enough foot traffic to warrant being open at lunchtime and Willougby said food sales don’t net them enough money to make pushing their hours to 2 a.m. worthwhile.

“We could stay open until 2 a.m. selling hotdogs … but it doesn’t make any sense,” Willoughby said. “How many hotdogs do you have to sell to keep the lights on?”

With few new COVID-19 cases within Interior Health, both Mulgrew and Willoughby said they would like to see action from the province, noting their businesses shouldn’t have to suffer because of high case-counts in the Lower Mainland.

“I think it makes a lot more sense to regionalize (the restrictions),” said Mulgrew.

“I don’t understand why the province has to blanket it so much, especially when we have so little cases here. It is heavy-handed and poorly thought out.”

While both establishments will remain open for now, Willoughby said Kelowna is at a “tipping point,” at risk of losing some of its most iconic drinkeries.

“There are closures already happening (across the province),” he said.

“We’re at a point where we’re employing our staff, not because we can afford to, but because we want to give them a job. We’re absorbing the losses right now. And you can only do that for so long.

“If things taper off any further, we could be forced to close, and it would be an indefinite closure until things improve.”

READ MORE: Turkey dinner tradition continues at Kelowna’s Gospel Mission


Daniel Taylor
Reporter, Kelowna Capital News
Email me at daniel.taylor@kelownacapnews.com
Follow me on Twitter

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