Yellowknife pub acquitted of breaking COVID-19 rules

YELLOWKNIFE — The owners of a Yellowknife pub who were accused of violating COVID-19 public health orders say they're relieved they won't have to pay a $5,175 ticket.

The Monkey Tree Pub was acquitted in territorial court Friday of operating a dance floor on Nov. 14, 2020, which was against requirements for restaurants and bars staying open at the time.

Pub co-owners Jennifer Vornbrock and Steve Dinham said they were relieved with the outcome and that the case is over. They said they felt public health concerns could have been dealt with through better communication and education rather than through court.

"I don't think it was necessary for it to come to this. This was a lot of government money that was wasted," Vornbrock told reporters outside the courthouse.

"We firmly believe that everything we've done navigating this pandemic, we've done our best."

Deputy Judge Bernadette Schmaltz said she accepted the evidence of two liquor inspectors, who testified that the dance floor was open and they saw roughly 15 people dancing when they conducted a routine inspection after midnight. She said their testimony was "thoughtful and thorough."

But the judge said the Crown provided "absolutely no evidence" that the pub or the wider public was given notice of the public health order.

Prosecutor Roger Shepard said the order "attracted quite a bit" of media attention and commentary online. He argued the judge could take judicial notice, a rule in law that relieves parties from having to provide formal evidence if a fact is not controversial or cannot be reasonably disputed.

Schmaltz, however, said taking judicial notice of the specific contents of the order would be going too far. She said she could not convict the pub of contravening that order.

Upon hearing the decision, Vornbrock breathed a sigh of relief and said, "Oh my God." She was shaking and crying as she left the courtroom.

The owners said they are grateful to an online crowdfunding effort that helps Canadians fight fines for violating COVID-19 public health orders.

"Small businesses have a tough enough time financially as it is," Dinham said.

"Most of these places can't afford lawyers in any capacity, but especially this coming at the tail end of two years of sporadic closures, it definitely wasn't a cost that we could incur."

The pub was one of two businesses in the Northwest Territories that was charged with violating public health orders, and the only one to head to court. A charge against a grocery store in Hay River was stayed by the Crown in May.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 7, 2022.

The Canadian Press