Wind-whipped rain is lashing at the walls of the Gander Elks Lodge, threatening to carry off the whole building, but inside the air is frozen stiff with anticipation.
Dozens of people are sitting intently around grey foldable tables inside this hall in central Newfoundland, clutching brightly coloured markers that they jab at stacks of paper whenever a booming voice from a loudspeaker punctures the silence.“B73” “G56″ “O65″ “N43″
The tension doesn’t break until someone finally yells it out: “I’ve got a bingo!”
It’s Thursday night at the Elks Lodge, a 70-year-old hall near the Trans-Canada Highway in Gander, which has long meant time for bingo in this Newfoundland and Labrador town of about 13,500 people. About 60 die-hard bingo fans are here on this night for some of the first in-person bingo games played in the province since the Omicron variant shut down gatherings like these in December.
Bingo has long been religion in Canada’s easternmost province, and players were in a celebratory mood as they entered the hall, paying about $30 each for a chance at a $500 jackpot. But while Newfoundlanders love their games of chance, possibly more than any other Canadians, there’s one lottery they can’t play right now: Chase the Ace.
These community-run lotteries, where players crowd into halls to buy tickets for a weekly chance to draw the winning ace of spades, swept Newfoundland by storm after they first arrived less than a decade ago. For the last two years, however, the province has refused to issue lottery licences to church and community groups who’ve relied on Chase the Ace to raise millions for local causes.
The official reason, according to the department of government services, is public-health concerns. Chase the Ace lotteries, they say, can draw larger crowds than other popular games such as bingo, and these in-person events can’t be controlled.
Not everyone inside the Elks Lodge buys that explanation.
“There’s something fishy going on here,” said Luc Chouinard, the past president of the Elks Lodge.
“They say there’s a ‘licensing issue’ with Chase the Ace, but they can’t tell us why.”
The Elks in Gander have held two Chase the Ace events in the past, generating about $15,000 in total profit for the service group. That money goes into a charitable fund that helps pay for everything from prom gowns for local teenagers to lunch programs for school children to flights for cancer patients.
The province says it’s refusing to license the wildly popular Chase the Ace games because, despite gathering and physical distancing restrictions that apply to all venues, Chase the Ace is a special case – even as the province is opening up, like other places.
“Bingo events are typically held at venues where participants are seated and social distancing can be maintained. Chase the Ace events draw larger crowds, and, while seating may be available, participants are often standing, sometimes making it difficult to maintain social distancing,” said Krista Dalton, spokesperson for the department of government services.
“The decision not to license these events at this time is strictly due to public-health measures.”
In 2019, 88 Chase the Ace lottery licences were issued in the province. Newfoundland hasn’t approved a Chase the Ace lottery since March, 2020. But Mr. Chouinard, and others, think controversies connected to some community-run lotteries may be playing a role in that.
In 2017, the province froze a nearly $1-million prize at a Chase the Ace game in Goulds, a neighbourhood in St. John’s, after duplicate tickets were found. The lottery was allowed to continue after an investigation found the duplicates came from a printing error.
Later that year, the same lottery was attracting tens of thousands of people into the community for a chance at the jackpot. The lottery eventually raised $5.7-million for the local church parish – money now being fought over as part of a lawsuit against the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St. John’s for abuse at the Mount Cashel orphanage decades ago.
“The government won’t license us because there’s a big fuss about what groups are doing with the money,” Mr. Chouinard said.
Christine Penney, working behind the wood-panelled bar watched over by a mounted elk’s head in Gander, said the Elks’ volunteers do everything they can to follow public-health guidelines and keep people safe. Service groups play a vital role in their communities, and they need to be able to run their most popular fundraisers, she said.
“It’s really important for us to hold these events so we can help the community. Chase the Ace was very popular and just starting to gain momentum. So we’ll keep applying until we can get a licence,” said Ms. Penney, the service group’s new president.
“COVID has been difficult for groups like ours. We weren’t sure if we’d be able to survive.”
The return of bingo is a major step to normalcy, she said, and proof these events can be held safely. For now, bingo halls in Newfoundland can only operate at 50-per-cent capacity, with physical distancing of two metres between players at tables.
For several months, bingo games had been put on pause in Newfoundland because of public-health restrictions that limited gatherings to 25 per cent of a venue’s capacity, and prohibited food and drinks.
Susan Ash, a retired nurse who was checking vaccination records at the door, says the weekly lotteries are as much about socializing as they are a chance to win some money. Many of these players have been coming here for decades, and they sit at the same tables, with the same friends, every week.
Those connections are important at the end of a long pandemic that has kept people apart, Ms. Ash said.
“It was just wonderful to see the reaction from people as they came through the door,” she said. “They said ‘I’m so glad bingo’s back.’ People needed this.”
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