A pair of Ottawa restaurants have been charged with violating public health laws after allegedly hosting after-hours gatherings with dozens of people in what the head of the city's bylaw department is calling "flagrant disregard for public safety."
This weekend, bylaw officers allegedly found more than 50 people inside Tosca Restaurant in the downtown and Connor's Irish Pub and Eatery in Orléans, both of which have been charged with being open after 10 p.m.
They're among eight businesses that were charged with 15 offences in the weekend blitz, mostly under the provincial Reopening Ontario Act and the city's temporary mandatory mask bylaw.
Under the provincial order, in an orange zone like Ottawa, restaurants must stop serving alcohol after 9 p.m., close at 10 p.m., keep tables at least six feet apart, have a maximum of four people at each table, write down customer's names and contact information, and offer hand sanitizer.
But what undercover bylaw officers saw at some places fell far short of that standard, said Roger Chapman, the city's director of bylaw and regulatory services.
"Some of these violations [showed] flagrant disregard for public safety, and that was a real concern for us," Chapman told CBC.
At least one instance was particularly glaring, he said: bylaw officers tried to get into one restaurant after hours, but the doors were locked and they could see dozens of people inside.
"We could see, standing in the doorway, that there [were] many people in there, in some cases in excess of 60, 70 people in there," said Chapman, who did not identify which restaurant the incident occurred at.
Tosca faces additional charges of not doing proper contact tracing and serving alcohol after 9 p.m. CBC reached out to both Tosca and Connor's, but neither wanted to comment on the charges.
The other six businesses were charged with offences ranging from not providing hand sanitizer to customers to not properly enforcing mask-wearing rules.
The charges come as Ottawa is seeing a rise of COVID-19 cases involving variants of concern.
As of Friday, 15 people were confirmed to have one of two variants of concern first identified in the United Kingdom or South Africa.
Another 121 people who have tested positive for the illness are believed to have a variant of concern.
Licence could be revoked
All the businesses charged earlier this week were told Friday that any further violations will mean their food licence will be suspended or revoked, said Chapman.
When a business is charged by police or bylaw officers for not abiding by either the province's Liquor Licence Act or the Reopening Ontario Act, the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario (AGCO) gets involved — and there could be "serious consequences," said senior communications advisor Raymond Kahnert.
Those include being fined or having their liquor licences suspended or revoked, Kahnert said.
Kahnert said Friday the AGCO is currently reviewing the liquor licences for Tosca and Connor's. None of the other locations sell liquor.
"This is a serious business we're in, keeping the community safe and [businesses are] a part of that," he said.
Only two Ottawa bars owned by the same company — the Senate Tavern — have had their liquor licences suspended since the start of the pandemic.
Both Chapman and Kahnert said the vast majority of businesses have been following the rules.