"Social distancing done right." That's how a Saskatchewan bar promoted its "redneck dance cubes," which provincial officials say are not permitted.
The Longbranch, a Saskatoon country bar owned by the Ramada hotel chain, which was recently flagged by health officials for a possible COVID-19 exposure, says Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA) inspectors approved the plexiglass cubes.
In a Sept. 12 photo post on its Facebook page above the hashtag #redneckdancecube, the bar promoted the cubes as a space where up to four people could dance together. The photo showed two tall, wooden frames encased in plexiglass, except for an opening where dancers could enter.
"The goal is simply to be able to dance and maybe win some prizes," the bar wrote in reply to comments on their Facebook post. "So far we have had up to 4 in the space (if they are in the same group)."
Saskatoon-based health policy consultant Dennis Kendel questioned if people would stick to their groups in the cubes.
"I suppose if the four people in a cube are already members of a 'bubble' and they don't move between cubes, it may not be unsafe, but I think it's unlikely that 'cube swapping' does not occur."
Likely infectious person was at bar on Oct. 8
On Thursday, the SHA warned any patrons who were at The Longbranch on Oct. 8 that they should immediately self-isolate and call the provincial 811 health line if they had not distanced themselves from other bar patrons, had not stuck to their household or bubble, or if they had shared drinks. The SHA also counselled anyone at the bar who wasn't wearing a mask to self-isolate.
The SHA clarified on Friday that it had issued the alert because a person at the bar on that date was likely infectious with the coronavirus.
The Thursday alert stressed that "attending these events while sick and or attending without complying with public health recommendations for mass gathering puts you and everyone in your surrounding in your community at greater risk of infection with COVID-19."
Bars operating under Saskatchewan's COVID-19 guidelines can do so at 50 per cent of their seating capacity. As of July 16, bars were to "maintain an occupancy level that allows staff and customers to maintain appropriate physical distancing."
Dr. Saqib Shahab, Saskatchewan's chief medical health officer, said at a COVID-19 news conference on Friday that though people can still go to bars, they need to follow the guidelines.
"You can go with your close, consistent friends," he said, "but this is not the time to be mingling at bars."
Inspectors approved cubes, hotel says
Darryl Caudle, Ramada's vice-president of hotel operations in Saskatoon and Regina, said two SHA inspectors came to the bar, took photos and approved of the cubes before they reopened on Sept. 3. The bar had temporarily closed in April at the beginning of the pandemic.
Caudle said the inspectors were fine with the cubes. "In fact, they said they liked it because it actually helped avoid congregation on the dance floor."
He said the hotel was told this week that one person who was at the bar on Oct. 8 has tested positive for COVID-19.
According to Caudle, the bar takes people's names at the door and called customers to tell them about the positive test result. He said he did not know if the person who tested positive had been in a dance cube.
CBC News reached out to both the SHA and the Ministry of Health for comment about the public health alert and the cubes.
"While we encourage all operators to be creative when applying the necessary public health measures in their locations, the guidelines must be followed for the protection of staff and customers," a ministry spokesperson said.
Scott Livingstone, SHA's CEO, said he was not aware of any assessment or review of the cubes.
In a later email to CBC News, a spokesperson for the SHA would not confirm or deny that inspectors had approved the cubes, but said that according to provincial guidelines "dance floors and karaoke are not currently permitted. This would also include 'dance cubes.' "
Business owners need to monitor patrons: Shahab
A video shared online showing customers at Saskatoon's Divas nightclub closely packed together prompted Shahab to emphasize earlier this week that business owners "have to do their part to make sure guidelines are followed."
"For the most part, they are complying," he said.
Caudle said "it's a little bit harder to monitor" whether people stick to their bubbles or households when they're in the cubes.
"But at the end of the day, they would come from usually the same table and there were security people usually posted right along the dance floor area," he said.
Caudle said he removed the Facebook post on Thursday night because health officials told him he was not allowed to promote the cubes.
He said the bar has closed to allow for a deep clean and will reopen once it is cleared to do so.
As for the cubes, Caudle said they wouldn't be back.
"We are taking them down."