Yellowknife pub owner calls for city-wide shutdown of non-essential businesses

·4 min read
The co-owner of Yellowknife's The Monkey Tree Pub fears a lull in patrons will drag on if the chief public health officer doesn’t come down hard and order the city's non-essential businesses to close for two weeks.  (Sidney Cohen/CBC - image credit)
The co-owner of Yellowknife's The Monkey Tree Pub fears a lull in patrons will drag on if the chief public health officer doesn’t come down hard and order the city's non-essential businesses to close for two weeks. (Sidney Cohen/CBC - image credit)

Amid a growing outbreak of COVID-19 in Yellowknife, an uptown pub owner is imploring the Northwest Territories' chief public health officer to impose a city-wide shutdown of non-essential businesses.

"I am begging you - PLEASE JUST SHUT IT DOWN FOR TWO WEEKS!!" Jen Vornbrock, co-owner of The Monkey Tree Pub and Stake Restaurant, wrote in a Tuesday night Facebook post addressed to Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Kami Kandola.

"If we shut everything down NOW, we may have a chance at summer, our kids may have a chance at finishing the school year, my employees may have a chance at continuing to support their families and I MAY HAVE A CHANCE TO SURVIVE!!!"

On Wednesday, Vornbrock told CBC News that business has been "extremely slow" since several COVID-19 cases linked to N.J. Macpherson School, announced over the weekend, forced more than 1,000 people into isolation.

As of Wednesday, there were 34 confirmed, active cases in Yellowknife.

Vornbrock said not one table came to eat at Stake Restaurant Tuesday evening, so she closed shortly after 7 p.m.

"We may have to lay off four kitchen staff for the time being. Certainly a lot of part-time staff are not getting hours at this moment," she said, adding she has 32 employees on the payroll.

Vornbrock said she fears the lull in patrons will drag on if the chief public health officer doesn't come down hard and order all of Yellowknife's non-essential businesses to close.

A two-week shutdown, she said, would renew confidence in the public that it's safe to go out to eat and drink again.

But unlike other bars and restaurants in the city that have shuttered voluntarily, Vornbrock doesn't want to close unless everyone is ordered to do so.

"I just feel that if we did it, and everybody did it together, then we'd get through this faster," she said.

A spokesperson for the chief public health officer said officials are trying to align public health restrictions with risk to minimize the impact on society and the economy.

Darren Campbell said they have a list of places and times, as well as people, that might be affected by the Yellowknife outbreak, and this list will help them contain the spread over the coming weeks, "as long as people play their part."

He said if they determine there is "community transmission," public health measures may change.

Monkey Tree's fight against fine continues

This isn't Vornbrock's first time publicly opposing the direction of public health officials.

Last winter she accused a COVID-19 Coordinating Secretariat agent of harassment after receiving a $5,175 ticket for allegedly violating N.W.T. public health orders.

Vornbrock is fighting the fine in court with the help of a lawyer she said was paid for through a crowdfunding initiative run by conservative media outlet Rebel News. The "Fight the Fines" campaign helps pay for lawyers to defend against tickets related to breaches of public health orders.

Vornbrock said she's since gotten messages from people saying they won't spend money at her establishments now that she's "sided with Rebel News and white supremacy."

"I'm like, what the hell?" she told CBC News. "There's nothing wrong with accepting help, and financially, going up against the government would have been pretty tough."

There's nothing wrong with accepting help, and financially, going up against the government would have been pretty tough. - Jen Vornbrock, co-owner of The Monkey Tree Pub, Stake Restauarant

Vornbrock said they haven't yet entered a plea, and a court date set for this week was cancelled. A new date hasn't been set, she said.

"We haven't done anything wrong," said Vornbrock about the charge, and anyway, that's a separate issue from her call for a shutdown.

"I am fully on board with protecting our community and this is about protecting our community and our small businesses."

Dr. Kami Kandola, the N.W.T.'s chief medical officer of health, addresses reporters in the legislative assembly on Monday, following an announcement of a COVID-19 outbreak at Yellowknife's N.J. Macpherson School.
Dr. Kami Kandola, the N.W.T.'s chief medical officer of health, addresses reporters in the legislative assembly on Monday, following an announcement of a COVID-19 outbreak at Yellowknife's N.J. Macpherson School. (Liny Lamberink/CBC)

Copperhouse reverts to take-out, delivery only

Meanwhile, across the street from The Monkey Tree, Copperhouse Eatery and Lounge, is taking a different approach.

Co-owner Paul Henry said they decided to close the restaurant for in-house dining this week, and stick to take out and delivery instead.

"This is what's needed right now in the community so that we can put a circuit breaker on what we're dealing with and hopefully get back to the old normal," said Henry from his home, where he's isolating as a result of the city's outbreak.

"Shutting down for two weeks, is not good for business, but it's a risk assessment. If that pain is going to get us back to operating again, then that's worth it."

Henry wouldn't go so far, though, as to demand that Dr. Kandola order all non-essential businesses to close.

Throughout the pandemic, he said, he's deferred to the recommendations of the chief public health officer.

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