City bylaw enforcement officers on Saturday issued a warning for the Hart Community Centre Winter Market to shut down or possibly face fines for not observing the latest provincial health restrictions on crowd gatherings.
Alice Sigurdson, who organizes the market, said two bylaw officers paid a visit to the front door just before the 4 p.m. closing time to inform her that she and each of the 28 vendors risked $2,300 fines if they chose to reopen of Sunday for the second day of the market.
“They just said that this gathering had too many people in it,” said Sigurdson. “They said Dr. Henry said that no gathering can have more than six people. I said that I got certified by Northern Health, but he said, ‘No, that doesn’t matter,’ and if you do it tomorrow, the cops could come and each of us could be charged $2,300, plus the hall.”
Sigurdson was also told to provide contact tracing as one of the required rules. She insisted the bylaw officer speak directly to the vendors and they all gathered to hear the warning of the potential for fines.
“Nobody can afford that, so people just pulled out,” Sigurdson said. “They all were just stunned.
“I said it was an essential market but he said all markets are closed down. I had our kitchen open and food for sale and I thought we had it well under control. I don’t know what I did wrong.”
The Winter Market is classed as a community market, rather than a craft fair, but Sigurdson said she did not have the documents with her at the hall to show bylaw officers it had been approved by Northern Health as a market.
More than half the vendors present Saturday were selling baked goods and other types of food and as food vendors they are considered an essential service, bound by the rules of farmer’s markets which were updated to reflect the provincewide order on Thursday requiring masks in all public places.
Merri MacLaughlin traveled from 150 Mile House to sell hand-made tea towels and clothing and she was back at the community centre Sunday morning to pack up for the three-hour trip home, having lost a potentially profitable day selling her wares.
“The licence Alice got up there was for a market, not a craft fair,” said MacLaughlin. “The bylaw officer said it was a social event and craft fairs aren’t allowed. She went to Northern Health and was told it was OK as long as we had 50 per cent food.
“Somebody must have tattled, and they decided it was a craft fair. They kept saying, craft fair, craft fair, craft fair.”
MacLaughlin’s 79-year-old husband has health issues and she’s seen other markets in Prince George and won’t participate in them because she says the vendors are packed too closely together and she considers them unsafe. But because of the spacious setup and how the rules were enforced, she had no such concerns about the Hart Winter Market.
A total of 405 people attended the market in the six hours it was open Saturday (10 a.m. -4 p.m.) in what was the third consecutive weekend for the Winter Market. Crowd sizes in markets are limited to a maximum of 50 people at any one time and Sigurdson said there was someone at the door constantly monitoring the numbers. The mask order was observed and enforced, as it was the previous two weekends, when it wasn’t mandatory.
Sheldon White, whose company, Central Display & Tents, developed the floor plan and set up curtained booths for the market vendors to display their goods while allowing for physical distancing, is livid the bylaw officers issued their warning without offering Sigurdson any recourse.
“The City of Prince George just shut down a Northern Health-approved market without letting the organizer show proof it was approved, and it was approved on Friday by Northern Health to continue because it’s classed as an essential service,” said White.
“Although the bylaw officers were doing what they feel they are required to since the Thursday announcement, there were inaccurately educated prior to their shifts. The result in this misinformation is the shutdown of an approved market with irreversible damages to the operators. These operators were just doing what they were allowed to do.”
The provincial health office announced Thursday afternoon it was stepping up restrictions to fight a rising tide of COVID-19 cases and all community events in B.C. were cancelled until Dec. 7. But community markets, because they sell essentials, don’t have the same restrictions as events. White spoke with a Northern Health officer on Friday who did point out the need to modify the market’s floor plan to allow a greater percentage of food vendors, and two non-food vendors had to be excluded. An email message from Northern Health to White two weeks ago confirmed the following guidelines:
“Due to your exemption as a community market, you will be able to have more than 50 people attend the event. Please calculate and determine the maximum number of people that can comfortably fit in the community center. People of the same group and party can be within 2 meters of each other. Other groups & parties must be able comfortably space 2 meters apart. You can flow in and out people like the grocery stores. You do not have to wait 1 hour in between each guest.”
White says what transpired Saturday stems from a lack of communication between Northern Health and the city bylaw enforcement office which enforces health orders. He also pointed out there was no formal option provided to Sigurdson to dispute the claim she was contravening the order.
White contacted Mayor Lyn Hall and Hall confirmed he is aware of the concerns of the market operators but was unable to comment on the situation until Monday, when he’s able to consult with bylaw staff and other officials.
“I’m trying to glue all this together,” said Hall. “I have to get together with staff and see what transpired over there.”
Winter Market organizers and vendors are hopeful the problem can be sorted out in time for this weekend. The hall is booked for the market each weekend leading up to Christmas.
“I predict that the Hart Community Market will be open this coming weekend and will be more successful than ever,” said White. “I believe in this market and I believe it is the safest one of its kind in Prince George and all others should try to meet the standards that are set by the Hart Community Market.”