The owner of a once-bustling Winnipeg music school is calling the province’s public-health order enforcement unfair to small businesses after being hit with fines and shutdowns — despite not breaking the rules.
A year ago, Spirited Music was home to more than a dozen instructors and hundreds of eager students, hosting recitals and training would-be violinists, pianists, guitarists, among others.
Owner Robert Geurts said the pandemic has had a devastating impact on business; after the school shut down for a month in April, just a few instructors remain to teach between 30 and 40 students.
"It's a terrible scene. Ten months without income is a long stretch," Geurts said Tuesday.
Adding insult to injury, Spirited Music has been the subject of two public-health order fines since mid-November totalling $10,000 despite getting health officials' clearance to open, he said.
"Everywhere I turn I’m getting fined or shut down or derided or punished when I’m trying to follow the rules that they keep changing," he said.
"It’s patently unfair, this whole system."
When the province entered code-red restrictions in mid-November, Geurts said he checked in with health officials to make sure his school — which can be classified as an instruction or training facility and is therefore allowed to operate under current restrictions — could remain open. He was given the all-clear and continued to offer physically distanced, masked one-on-one instruction, he said.
"That same day a Winnipeg bylaw officer came by and checked us out and we were good to go," he said.
Just a week later, it seemed the rules had changed.
"Another bylaw officer came in the week afterwards, issued us a ticket for $5,000 and ordered us to immediately shut down," he said.
Geurts called Public Health again to check whether his business was still allowed to operate under the updated orders and was told the first ticket had been issued in error.
"So I reopened. A couple days later, the same bylaw officer came by, gave me another $5,000 fine and shut me down again," he said.
Spirited Music tried, temporarily, to move online but saw a drastic drop in students as a result. Income was already dropping through the summer and fall, but since being fined and shut down, Geurts said his business has taken a hit that will affect him for years to come.
"On top of not being able to earn income they slap you with all these fines and fees. I’ve lost income for this past year plus all the future years coming up," he said.
A representative for the province confirmed Tuesday that fines can be disputed only through the courts.
Geurts is working to secure his hearing date but believes the fines and enforcement officers’ confusion over health orders are having an unfair impact on small businesses.
"I tried to do everything right according to their system," he said. "Small businesses are getting destroyed while everybody who says ‘we’re all in this together’ is still getting their full paycheque and nobody cares."
Julia-Simone Rutgers is a general-assignment reporter.
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