COVID court: Montreal pizzeria's repeated physical distancing violations highlight bureaucratic nightmare
MONTREAL -- There are restaurants following COVID-19 regulations to the letter, and then there are those that aren’t quite so perfect.
And then there’s Pizzeria Moretti in Griffintown.
Police concerns this summer about the pizzeria were so over-the-top—including a bar brawl and a cook working with a full-blown infection—that the situation helped raise an interesting question.
How exactly should business owners be held to account for COVID-19 violations on their premises? And should it be owners, staff or customers who are punished?
The pizzeria was ultimately called to an emergency hearing before Quebec's alcohol, racing and gambling board. But its lawyer argued the liquor board should have nothing to do with it.
In fact, he argued, restaurants and bars shouldn’t be treated differently than any other business.
“My understanding is that this law should apply the same way to every owner,” said lawyer Sébastien Sénéchal.
“It should be the same thing for a person who has, let’s say, an Aldo shoe store, or a grocery store.”
The questions took on new importance in the last two weeks as the Legault government cracked down on rule-violators and then, this weekend, sent thousands of police officers to inspect bars around the province.
It’s a sign that the province is working out the kinks of a haphazard disciplinary process that can involve health inspectors, workplace safety inspectors, police, the courts and the liquor board.
The smorgasbord of options is complicated enough that nearly identical businesses can end up on different paths—with different financial consequences—for similar infractions, as one Gaspé restaurant helped demonstrate this summer when it became clear that its owner didn’t seem to believe in COVID-19.
POLICE SURVEILLANCE, A BRAWL, AN OUTBREAK
At the Wellington St. pizzeria in Montreal, things seemed to start predictably enough. “A 911 call indicated that there are a lot of people inside the restaurant,” says the notice, which was provided to CTV by the liquor board.
But that was May 8, while Montreal’s COVID-19 infections and deaths were near their peak. Aside from takeout and delivery service, restaurants in the city weren’t allowed to reopen at all until six weeks later, on June 22, and then they had to follow a host of special measures.
But according to the summons, police arriving there in early May say they found nine people inside, in two groups. Individual tickets were given out to those inside the restaurant.
Follow-up visits appeared to show a pattern. According to police, twice more they found groups inside, at the bar or tables, sipping wine. Once they described a man “sitting at a table with… two of his female cousins,” kissing and hugging them as they left.
More tickets and infraction reports were issued along the way, both to customers and management.
After restaurants got the green light to open, police said problems continued, and not just with distancing. Past midnight on July 18, according to the liquor board, another 911 call came in saying there’d been a fight, with the caller reporting about 20 people inside and broken glasses.
According to the board notice, police arrived to find a “violent” man who then “grabbed and held a female employee as a human shield in his attempt to escape.” Officers chased him on foot and used a Taser on him in order to arrest him, the summons said.
On July 19, 21, 22 and 24, citizens lodged more complaints with police, the summons said—this time painting a picture of a growing alleged outbreak of COVID-19 among restaurant staff.
At least one of these reports came from someone who said he or she lived with an employee.
“It was mentioned that the boss has been absent... but that the employees haven’t been told that he tested positive for COVID-19,” one said.
Police were told that two waitresses and a supervisor had the illness. According to board's documentation, a 911 caller reported that six staff had tested positive and the management “had hidden the first positive cases for more than a week,” with other people refusing to get tested.
When police showed up again on July 22, they say a cook who was working indicated that he had COVID-19 symptoms. Several staff members, including the boss, weren’t wearing masks correctly and had no visors or safety glasses, police said.
The pizzeria’s owner, Nicola Monaco, finally met police on July 29, according to the summons. They said Monaco claimed to be unaware of his employees’ positive cases and said he hadn’t been in the restaurant throughout the pandemic.
Police began to do surveillance, reporting on Aug. 13 that a maskless staffer shook hands with clients, also maskless, and the next day that a staffer “shook the hands of clients and embraced clients upon their arrival, and wore a mask around the neck.”
QUESTIONS ABOUT THE BOARD’S POWER
The restaurant was closed on an emergency basis on Aug. 24 and was issued an urgent notice to appear before the liquor board. The board has the power to revoke or suspend liquor licences and to issue penalties of up to $100,000, according to the notice.
That was when questions began over exactly who was in charge of enforcing COVID-19 laws, and where to do it.
Sénéchal, the pizzeria’s lawyer, said that some of the allegations were true, “but a lot of them are exaggerated and some of them are simply false.”
His client admits that some customers “were not wearing the mask all the time,” he said.
But his bigger argument, when he came before the liquor board last week, was that he shouldn’t need to be there at all.
“It’s not the correct body,” he said. “Maybe it should be sent to the attention of (public health), or CNESST if the employees’ safety is in limbo.”
The liquor board is “not a court,” he said—if a business is creating enough of a health risk to require closure, it should be slapped with a regular court injunction.
He and the board’s lawyers didn’t get a chance to pursue that argument very far, since the pizzeria owner decided to take a settlement offer after a day and a half of hearings. Their joint agreement involves a period of semi-closure where the restaurant is allowed to deliver, but not to sell takeout. It will also hire a security guard whose job will be purely to enforce COVID-19 rules, Sénéchal said.
The two other businesses that were called before the liquor board and sanctioned over COVID-19 problems are the Café Bellerose in Laval and the Mondo Bistro Lounge in Saint-Jerome.
AN EMERGENCY IN GASPÉ
Sénéchal is right—a different kind of closure is also an option. This is what happened to a restaurant owner in the Gaspé Peninsula this August.
The Percé restaurant Mille Délices seems similar to Pizzeria Moretti: both serve alcohol and can therefore fall under the purview of the liquor board.
However, they were treated differently. While the pizzeria was visited by police and then brought before the liquor board, Mille Délices was visited multiple times by workers’ safety inspectors and then ordered closed by the local public health director.
The owner of Mille Délices had said “he doesn’t believe in COVID-19,” said Martin Vézina of the Quebec Restaurant Association. The owner’s daughter told media the restaurant wouldn’t make employees wear masks.
Such cases are a sharp contrast from most of Quebec’s roughly 18,000 restaurants, Vézina said.
“Restaurant owners are trying to follow the rules,” he said. “They want to offer a safe environment for customers.”
Mille Délices was told it could reopen only when it had an approved plan. But that kind of power, like the liquor board's, doesn’t rely on the courts, either—public health directors can shut restaurants because of urgent health threats without a judge’s approval, Vézina said, as is the case after extremely alarming kitchen inspections.
This right “is used very, very, very rarely,” he said. In general, authorities “would prefer to go through the liquor board or to go with fines.”
FOR BUSINESSES, WORKER SAFETY FINES THE MOST COMMON SO FAR
So how is it all supposed to work, according to the province?
A spokesperson for the public safety department said that all business owners face the same baseline penalty under the Public Health Act: fines issued by police.
One section of the act allows tickets of up to $6,000 to be slapped on “anyone who obstructs or hinders [health authorities]” in exercising their functions, and it is meant to apply to people who run organizations, rather than regular citizens.
However, businesses with a liquor licence do face an additional layer of potential consequences before the liquor board, the department confirmed—though Vézina said it was his understanding that this was mostly intended to apply, or was mostly being applied, to bars rather than restaurant-bars.
The liquor board doesn’t have its own inspectors, which is why it relies on police reports.
Another body has a major role to play: CNESST, the board that protects workers’ safety. It was CNESST inspectors who issued fines to the Gaspé restaurant Mille Délices before it was closed.
Restaurants have generally been more aware of CNESST inspectors than police—so far. Across the industry, “there are a lot of CNESST inspectors out,” said Vézina.
“At the beginning of the reopening, they were there more as an additional help for restaurant owners to understand and adapt,” as they tried to set up their dining rooms safely, he said.
Now they’re giving out more fines.
A spokesperson for the CNESST said its inspectors have issued 19 statements of infraction since March 13 for not complying with COVID-19 worker protections.
CNESST inspects all kinds of businesses, not just restaurants. The spokesperson said the sectors that attracted the most tickets were construction, commerce and restaurants.
For an establishment, fines can range from $1,752 to $3,502 for a first offence, and from $7,002 to $ 14,006 for a repeat offence. For a person, the fines can range from $700 to $1,752 for a first offence and $3,502 to $7,002 for a repeat offence.
Until now, then, it appears that CNESST has been ticketing companies more often than police.
As of Sept. 15, police across Quebec had given out just 16 infraction reports to companies, totalling $26,190 in fines, according to data provided to CTV. Of those, seven were in Montreal.
Police have been very active in fining individuals, ticketing 3,682 people for a total of nearly $5.4 million in fines (if fined while at an establishment, some of those individuals could have been staff, not customers).
WHO’S TO BLAME, CUSTOMER OR STAFF?
That raises another question. When the Montreal suburb of Côte-Saint-Luc became the first Quebec jurisdiction to made masks mandatory, on July 1, its mayor stressed that business owners would not be fined if customers didn’t wear masks, and would not be asked to play “mask police.”
An owner would face consequences only if “he didn’t put out the sign the city has given, he doesn’t have a place to wash your hands, and he’s not telling people to wear masks,” Mayor Mitchell Brownstein said.
But if the business is found responsible, should staff, managers or owners be the ones sanctioned?
How the province manages this balancing act will become clearer over the next few weeks, as it continues its promised crackdown.
As the crackdown began on Friday, a government spokesperson said that if police found “a clear risk to public health” at any establishment, they would communicate the information to public health—and to the liquor board.
At the request of Public Security Minister Genevieve Guilbault, police visited 2,206 establishments over the weekend, handing out 90 tickets and issuing 1,500 warnings for infractions including overcrowding, drinking after hours, no mask wearing, drinking while standing up and dancing.
The worst corporate offenders will see files started by authorities, though which authorities will oversee which cases? That still isn’t clear.
- With reporting from Kelly Greig