Manitobans will get their first taste of their new liquor regulations during the final week of March, when the Juno Awards will serve as a test run for a long-awaited liberalization of alcohol sales in the province's restaurants and bars.
For decades, owners of Manitoba restaurants, clubs and hotels have complained about a mess of confusing and contradictory liquor regulations that make it difficult to simultaneously sell alcohol, make money and obey the law.
The morass of regulations included 12 separate licence categories for establishments that sell alcohol, each with their own hours of operations and restrictions, including a widely hated requirement to keep track of food-vs.-alcohol sales ratios.
Over an 18-month review, the Selinger government announced last year the regulations would be simplified to make life easier for the hospitality industry and less confusing to consumers. A package of new rules was promised before the end of 2013.
An extended summer session of the Manitoba legislature meant those rules did not materialize last year. They're not expected to be enacted until April 1, when the NDP government plans to proclaim a new Liquor and Gaming Act that will effectively replace the six-decade-old Liquor Control Act.
"The way the rules were set up before, it was goofy. This should make it a little easier to operate," said Ray Beaudry, who owns Le Garage in St. Boniface and was consulted as part of the regulatory review. "For us, it won't change the way we do things because food is a big portion of what we do here. But at least we won't get fined for technicalities."
The original plan called for the new regulations to be in place in time for the Juno Awards, which will be held in Winnipeg this spring. The province now plans to test out aspects of the new rules during Juno Week, which runs from March 24 to 30, said NDP cabinet minister Dave Chomiak, the minister responsible for gaming and one of the architects of the liquor-regulation reform.
"We were shooting for the end of the year, but you know what happened last summer," said Chomiak, referring to a legislative session extended by the Progressive Conservative Opposition's efforts to draw attention to the NDP's provincial sales tax hike.
"That's why we're doing this interim measure. How do we achieve our goal of opening up more (live music venues) during the Junos when we don't have our regulations?" he asked.
Along with the customary extension of alcohol-serving hours during Juno Week, liquor authorities are offering special permits to restaurants that wish to operate as live music venues after 8 p.m., and hotel beverage rooms that want to open up live shows to minors. In effect, live music will function as a stand-in for the sale of food.
The special permits will serve as a preview of a significant package of reforms planned for April 1, when an existing 12-licence regime is expected to be replaced by three liquor-licence categories: one for manufacturers of alcohol, another for retailers and a third for liquor-serving establishments.
Although some Winnipeggers hoped for a complete liberalization of liquor-serving rules, the fine print of the regulations will not allow for stand-alone bars. The liquor-serving licence is expected to be divided into four sub-categories: places that function mainly as live music venues; establishments that mainly serve food; personal-service business such as hair salons or spas; and licensees that require custom permits, such as sports venues.
"The idea is to be more flexible. But we're not going to have saloons popping up all over the place," said Chomiak, noting municipalities will still be able to approve what sorts of establishments go where.
Absent from the new rules will be minimum size restrictions for live-music venues, arbitrary distinctions between DJs and other entertainers, the enforcement of food-vs.-alcohol ratios and other hated aspects of the old regime, he promised. That means no more scenes where restaurants with packed lounges are forced to turn away customers even though they have empty seats in the food-service portion of their establishments.
The province quietly rolled out some of the changes on Jan. 1, when restrictions on DJs and small live music venues were removed under existing regulations.
Chomiak said the full new package of regulations should prevent liquor inspectors from constantly dinging licensees with minor infractions, while freeing them up to tackle serious infractions, such as the sale of alcohol to minors or disorderly scenes outside bars.
Hotels, meanwhile, will retain their historic monopoly on beer vendors. They will be governed by both retail-sales and alcohol-serving licences, Chomiak said.