Playing by the Rules 

Whistler bars get a crash course in new liquor laws

While new liquor laws may level the playing field for license holders, for some establishments it’s going to take some time to adjust

A few years ago the provincial government and liquor branch came to the realization that liquor laws in B.C. were hopelessly dated and did not reflect the growing cosmopolitan image and tourism values of the province – the word "archaic" would not be out of place.

While bars and restaurants could prosper within the constrictive boundaries of their license specifications (10 different license types were available), licensed establishments felt they were unable to respond to trends or break from the restrictions imposed by their licenses in order to stay competitive in what is essentially a dog-eat-dog industry.

Joy MacPhail, the former finance minister for B.C., said the government would respond to the concerns of license holders by reducing red tape and streamlining licenses. "I believe small business is the future of this province, and business owners have told me very clearly that our liquor laws are out of date and, in some cases, downright obstructionist."

For example, under the current laws you aren’t allowed to sit in a restaurant and have a drink unless you order something off the menu. Some license holders were not allowed to host live entertainment or even install televisions, while still others were forced to close an hour earlier than other establishments.

In response, the B.C. government commissioned an independent review of provincial liquor laws in an attempt to bring the laws more in line with the needs and realities of business owners. The final report, titled Review of Liquor Regulations in the Province of British Columbia, contained recommendations on modernizing everything from liquor store hours of operation, to the licensing process, to the U-Brew and U-Vin industry.

Now, nearly two years after the review was completed and 18 months after it was officially adopted by cabinet, changes are finally taking place. Restaurant and bar owners are

Changes that apply to restaurants and bars include:

reducing the number of license types to two – ‘A’ licenses for businesses that mainly serve liquor, and ‘B’ licenses for those that serve mainly food;

Eliminating regulatory policies that serve no public health or safety purpose, such as regulations governing the number and size of televisions in bars and restaurants;

Allowing restaurants to serve beer and wine in holding lounges, which are limited to 10 per cent of an establishment’s seating or up to 20 seats;

Increasing hours of operation and seating capacity for pubs and lounges;

Ensuring compliance and enforcement of liquor laws, through equal application of the laws and consistent penalties across the province, such as fines and license suspensions for the most serious cases.

Some nightclub owners feel that extending hours of operation for pubs and lounges and allowing restaurants to serve alcohol will inevitably cut into their piece of the pie. And while nightclubs will benefit from increased occupancy rates, they will also be under closer scrutiny as liquor license inspectors ensure that everyone follows the new rules and their license specifications to the letter.

"It’s a situation where we’ve gone from having to police ourselves in Whistler in a lot of ways, to very definite and consistent enforcement," says Dale Schweighardt, the manager for Buffalo Bill’s and head of the local Food and Beverage Association.

On Dec. 20, Schweighardt held a three-hour seminar at Buffalo Bill’s for 65 local bars and restaurants, called The Whistler Licensee Post-Liability Seminar. The seminar explained the new liquor laws and regulations in detail, the responsibilities of license holders, the liability issues that could arise, and answered any questions businesses had.

The seminar was directed by the provincial liquor branch, and involved the police, fire department, and ICBC. The RCMP talked about their Counterattack program, the fire department discussed safe occupancy issues, and ICBC discussed fatigue as the major cause of accidents on Highway 99.

"Although alcohol is always a major concern, sometimes it’s not the alcohol that’s the issue," says Schweighardt. "People drive up early in the morning, ski all day, have a beer, jump in the car and drive home; if it’s a warm drive home they just fall asleep.

"The liquor board outlined the incentives they’re going to try to put in place to resolve some of those issues."

While most of Whistler’s bars and restaurants had a general idea of the what the changes would mean, Schweighardt says many seminar attendants had questions or needed further clarification of the laws.

"I think everybody’s been fairly well-informed through the media, but there’s also a large amount of information that has come through that hasn’t been entirely clear or outlined ins a specific manner.

"I think it’s going to be a learning process for everyone – everybody expects it and accepts it – but nothing should be finalized until we’ve had a chance to catch up with the changes," says Schweighardt. "There was some comment that as a resort Whistler should be given a little more of a lenient sort of approach, that I don’t think that the liquor board is taking."

Most Whistler establishments who qualify for a greater capacity have already applied to the government, and Schweighardt expects will they will be approved in the coming months. Pubs, lounges and cabarets will be able to increase their licensed capacity by up to 50 per cent, or up to their building’s safe capacity (as determined by the fire department), whichever is lower. Approval of the liquor control and licensing branch is required, and so ideally is the approval of local governments.

While he doesn’t expect any serious problems for local business owners, and believes that the overall big picture is a positive one, he feels license holders will require some time to get used to the new laws.

"Definitely (the new liquor laws) make it a level playing field for all individuals, so all those people who have had some advantages in the past shouldn’t have those advantages any more," says Schweighardt.

"I don’t know that there’s a big adjustment, but I think the liquor board itself has to make some adjustments because they are new rules. They’re also in a learning curve. I’m hoping that (the new laws) are somewhat flexible for all licensees who may not understand them yet."

Jorge Alvarez, the manager of Maxx Fish, agrees that the laws could create a level playing field if they’re applied and likes the idea of having a liquor inspector in town to keep things equal. However, he feels that the new laws don’t go far enough.

"Some of these laws are archaic," he says.

"Say you have live entertainment, the guys in the band are not allowed to drink. Come on – it’s rock and roll. It’s the same thing with DJ’s, these guys who play all over the world where the laws are more lenient. You have to explain B.C. laws to them but it still doesn’t make any sense.

"They’re here to entertain, not to put on a clown show, but under our laws they’re considered employees. They don’t understand it, and I don’t either."

Alvarez says there are dozens of other laws in the book that he feels don’t make a lot of sense, and that were not part of the review.

"We’re trying to be a World Class resort where people go to have a good time, and yet we have some of the most restrictive liquor laws in the free world. It doesn’t add up."

 

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