Winnipeg, it appears you have a drinking problem.
This frank diagnosis didn’t come from an intervention-like confrontation such as the kind that occurs when family and friends surround a subject and, with tough love, offer evidence of the destructive impact of the individual’s alcohol misuse.
Instead, this moment of reckoning was delivered by Dr. Brent Roussin. The province’s chief public health officer’s disappointment with the drinking habits of a small-but-dangerous gaggle of Winnipeggers should be heeded as a warning because Manitoba remains in a state of emergency and, under The Public Health Act, Dr. Roussin has near-unlimited powers that would let him decree last call for all commercial establishments where people gather to drink.
In the nearly seven months he has held frequent press conferences about Manitoba’s response to the COVID-19 crisis, Dr. Roussin has become familiar to the public as someone who is calm and controlled, even as he sometimes frustrates journalists by sidestepping tough questions.
But his usual levelheaded demeanor was tilted toward irritation last week, however, when he talked about bar-hoppers recklessly spreading the virus. He cited one itinerant barfly who, despite experiencing COVID-19 symptoms, still made 36 different contacts during an evening of drifting and drinking.
Dr. Roussin noted half of the new infections in the city are now linked to bars, pubs and restaurants. Is anyone surprised it’s drinking establishments in which the virus seems to flourish? It’s a fact as old as the first fermentation of grain that, when drinking, some people make bad choices. Not everyone, but some.
It doesn’t matter that most Winnipeggers are able to sip sensibly even during a pandemic, enjoying an evening out while adhering to restrictions such as social distancing and wearing masks when not imbibing. But all it takes for the virus to spread are a few people whose inhibitions and good judgment are erased by intoxication.
The province plans to consult with the bar and restaurant industry about the irresponsible pursuit of alcohol-fueled socialization. The owners of licensed establishments would be wise to recognize this consultation could be their last chance before their facilities are forced to closed, as they were early in the pandemic.
In normal times, the managers of bars and restaurants find it doesn’t pay to nag their customers. They design their establishments to offer an ambience that is welcoming and friendly, where patrons feel free to cut loose and have a bit of fun. Such a vibe is dampened when the staff are obliged to act like school marms and wag their fingers at paying customers who aren’t wearing their masks properly or decide to stand up and socialize with friends at a different table.
These are not normal times, however. Managers in the hospitality industry might find they need to be inhospitable to rule breakers, for the greater good of Winnipeg and its surrounding region.
Their alternative is running afoul of the public-health official who has the power to make emphatic decisions and impose strict measures. If the bars and restaurants can’t solve the the problem that has been shown to be responsible for much of the city’s COVID-19 spread, he can do so with a fix that’s as simple as locking their doors.