September 19, 2020

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COVID exposure warning at Winnipeg hookah lounge

The potential COVID-19 exposure at the restaurant happened from 10 p.m. to 3 a.m. on Sept. 5, and 6 p.m. to 3 a.m. on Sept. 6. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press files)

The potential COVID-19 exposure at the restaurant happened from 10 p.m. to 3 a.m. on Sept. 5, and 6 p.m. to 3 a.m. on Sept. 6. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press files)

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The province is warning of a potential COVID-19 exposure at a Winnipeg hookah lounge, as establishments that serve the smoking product continue to rack up fines for breaching public health orders during the pandemic.

A list of recent potential coronavirus exposures published by Manitoba public health officials includes Ibex Restaurant and Lounge on the 600 block of Sargent Avenue — the latest hookah establishment to be ticketed.

The province has issued 15 fines, totalling $34,000, against six establishments that serve hookah since late May. The owner of Ibex did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

The potential COVID-19 exposure at the Winnipeg restaurant happened from 10 p.m. to 3 a.m. Sept. 5, and 6 p.m. to 3 a.m. Sept. 6, officials said.

A hookah is an instrument traditionally used to smoke shisha, a mixture of tobacco and molasses sugar or fruit. Under normal circumstances, some Winnipeg restaurants operate as hookah lounges by offering customers the ability to smoke tobacco-free herbal shisha.

Public health temporarily banned the use of hookahs during the novel coronavirus pandemic, due to "the risk of transmission of COVID-19 that they present," according to a provincial spokeswoman.

However, the owner of one such establishment says officials are unfairly targeting hookah lounges.

Amanjot Singh Bajwa, co-owner of 7 Arabian Dreams (775 Corydon Ave.), said he believes hookahs can be safely smoked during the pandemic.

"No other business has been targeted like the hookah lounge. I think this is kind of a racist thing, because it’s not from here, it’s from the Middle East and from India… I don’t know why they are doing this to us, but this is very bad," Singh Bajwa said Wednesday.

"It’s been very hard for us. All of a sudden, they just said, ‘You guys can’t serve hookah.’ Our place is a hookah lounge. That’s our main thing; that’s why people come there. They come there to smoke."

Earlier in the pandemic, Singh Bajwa said his restaurant complied with public health orders and stopped offering hookah. He said sales plummeted overnight, threatening his ability to keep the business open.

"We didn’t serve hookah for a week, and our sales dropped by 80 per cent," Singh Bajwa said.

Eventually, 7 Arabian Dreams began serving hookah again, which led to a rash of fines from public health officials. The restaurant has been issued six tickets for a total of $15,252, since Aug. 1.

Singh Bajwa said he plans to fight the tickets via his lawyer, since paying them would be crippling for the small business.

"They don’t want me to serve hookah, so eventually we’re going to have to shut down, and then who is going to pay all of my expenses? My landlord doesn’t care about their orders. He needs his rent. I have 20 employees, they need their money," Singh Bajwa said.

Twitter: @rk_thorpe

Ryan Thorpe

Ryan Thorpe

Ryan Thorpe likes the pace of daily news, the feeling of a broadsheet in his hands and the stress of never-ending deadlines hanging over his head.

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