October 21, 2020

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Last call for mask-free alcohol

The outdoor patio of the King's Head Pub is quiet on Saturday evening. Tightened COVID-19 restrictions will mandate masks in all public spaces, including bars and restaurants, beginning Monday in Winnipeg and surrounding municipalities.


The outdoor patio of the King's Head Pub is quiet on Saturday evening. Tightened COVID-19 restrictions will mandate masks in all public spaces, including bars and restaurants, beginning Monday in Winnipeg and surrounding municipalities.

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For several hours Saturday, as the city waited with bated breath for stricter public health measures to go into effect, more than 125 Winnipeggers gathered at the Palomino Club in the Exchange District, and — at least for them, at least for a night — it almost seemed there was no pandemic at all.

The partiers, young and old alike, file into the club past security guards patting people down and checking temperatures at the door. A large group huddles close together at the downstairs bar, standing shoulder-to-shoulder, shouting loudly above the din of music.

Almost no one wears a mask.

In the men's bathroom, crowded and tight-quartered, two people who’ve just met introduce themselves with a handshake. Upstairs, people sway with the live music echoing from the stage, and others move in packs from the patio to their seats, to the bar and back.

Outside, people place their drinks on a small table before entering the designated smoking area. Two Kokanees, two Standards, three Heinekens, two Bud Lights, and a few mixed drinks sit there, all of them open, all of them jumbled together, waiting for their owners’ return.

"For me, it’s bullshit," says a man smoking a cigarette, when asked if he’s worried about the novel coronavirus pandemic. He stands next to his friend, both exhaling clouds of smoke into the night, and asks for his name not be published.

"I don’t believe it at all… I don’t like (the restrictions), but most of the people are scared, so it’s OK for them. I don’t like to wear a mask, though. I’m not going to change my life."

Aside from what staff say is a smaller-than-normal crowd, a ban on dancing, and a message flashing on TVs throughout the club asking patrons not to post photos to social media, signs this is a Saturday night in the middle of a global pandemic, and not just another fall weekend in Winnipeg, are few and far between.

Establishments like the Palomino Club have come under greater scrutiny in recent weeks as the COVID-19 case count continues to climb, with a number of recent exposures linked to young people bar hopping in the city.

On Thursday, Manitoba’s chief public health officer, Dr. Brent Roussin, said roughly half of recent positive cases could be linked to young people, many in their 20s, gathering at crowded restaurants, pubs, bars and clubs. Some were found to have visited more than one establishment in a night, while others went out despite being symptomatic. In one case, 36 "close contacts" were identified for a single individual.

On Friday, Roussin announced "the Winnipeg metropolitan region will move to the restricted level, or orange on the pandemic response system," effective Monday. Mask use will be mandatory at all indoor public spaces, including bars and restaurants.

"The indicators, certainly in the Winnipeg health region, are trending in the wrong direction. We’re seeing more people developing symptoms and accessing testing. We’re seeing a growing test-positivity rate and seeing higher rates of community-based transmission," Roussin said.

The World Famous Palomino Club in downtown Winnipeg.


The World Famous Palomino Club in downtown Winnipeg.

Even more restrictions could be coming down the pike for restaurants and bars, he added, as the province plans to consult with the industry to develop further measures to help reduce the spread of COVID-19.

But not all of the bars visited by the Free Press Saturday were flouting social distancing guidelines like those gathered at the Palomino Club.

At Bar Italia on Corydon Avenue — the site of a recent exposure — roughly 20 people gathered at tables separated by plexiglass dividers, mainly staying seated and keeping to their groups. They were served by a waitress with a mask hooked around her ears, but pulled down below her chin, who bounced from table to table slinging drinks.

Down the street, at Chaise Café and Lounge, whose owner has been repeatedly fined for breaching public health orders during the pandemic, only a few people sat on the patio, and roughly a dozen others could be seen gathered inside through the window.

Corydon Avenue, normally a popular spot for a weekend night out, was quiet Saturday, with only a slow trickle of people walking down the sidewalk, standing there smoking cigarettes, occasionally popping into one of the strip’s many restaurants, lounges and bars.

At the King’s Head Pub in the Exchange District, the crowd was also small and social distancing guidelines were strictly observed. Staff checked photo identification at the door — not just for age, but to turn away anyone from out of province — and sprayed customers’ hands with sanitizer before allowing them inside.

All of the staff members were wearing masks, and the patrons remained seated at their tables, which were spaced out throughout the bar. Across the street, 15 to 20 people could be seen at the Bijou Patio enjoying a fall night under the stars, and another group gathered in Old Market Square following a bike jam.

Back at the Palomino Club, a man and woman sell hot dogs from a cart set up next to the building. The man says this is one of the slowest nights he's seen in weeks, adding it's been consistently busy during the pandemic, which has been good for business.

"Oh, it’s been busy. Last week, it was busy. Tonight, not so busy," he says, as people spill out the front door and wander off into the night.

One of them, a man who did not want to give his name, says he was motivated to come out for a very simple and very human reason: an overwhelming desire for connection.

"I just wanted to see people," he says, walking down the sidewalk around midnight, heading home.

"And I hate people. That’s the weirdest part."


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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Updated on Sunday, September 27, 2020 at 9:12 PM CDT: Fixes typo

September 28, 2020 at 6:14 AM: Corrects typo

10:58 PM: Adds photo of Palomino Club

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