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The first night Vancouver’s Fox Cabaret reopened in early July, co-owner Darlene Rigo felt like a teacherpolicing a playground as she tried her best to determine if patrons leaving their tables were starting to dance – a violation of British Columbia’s COVID-19 rules for bars and nightclubs.

“They stand up without their mask and at what point is it taking a step away from their table or a dance move, I don’t know,” said Ms. Rigo. “What we did find is that people would try to start dancing and that’s when we would basically have to ask them to sit down again."

That job was made easier with Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry outlawing standing in nightclubs a couple weeks later, along with a ban on sidling up to the bar to get a drink. Now, when people begin letting the music move them just a little too much, Ms. Rigo and her staff kindly point to the signage everywhere and – channeling Dr. Henry – calmly ask them to stop.

Paul Stoilen, founder and president at Safe and Sound Entertainment, said it takes the servers, managers and security to all make sure different groups are not mingling at the three downtown venues his company has open. If a patron gets caught breaking the rules three times, then they are asked to leave, said Mr. Stoilen, a 15-year veteran of the industry.

Bar and nightclub owners say they overhauled the layout of their establishments and are capably enforcing physical-distancing rules in the two months since B.C. allowed them to welcome tables of up to six guests – a portion of whom inevitably end up breaking the rules after drinking.

But epidemiologists question whether it’s time to once again close these non-essential venues, given infections among adults younger than 40 are spiking as the school year approaches. This week, B.C. has amassed an average of more than 70 daily new infections, and six of the eight public spaces currently linked to outbreaks by the Vancouver Coastal Health authority are downtown bars or clubs.

Caroline Colijn, an infectious disease modeller at Simon Fraser University, said if these trends don’t reverse “very, very soon” then local health authorities should consider ordering bars and clubs closed.

“I’m not sure there’s a set of rules you’re going to be able to put in place that will guarantee that transmission doesn’t happen in an indoor, crowded, loud setting where people are socializing, talking, shouting, drinking, singing and dancing,” said Dr. Colijn, the Canada 150 Research Chair in Mathematics for Evolution, Infection and Public Health.

Paul Tupper, an epidemiologist at Simon Fraser, said if the public is still debating whether it is too risky to reopen schools, then nightclubs should definitely be closed.

Jeff Guignard, executive director of the Alliance of Beverage Licensees, a lobby group for the province’s bars, clubs and private liquor stores, said the vast majority of venues are keeping strangers far enough apart. He said he knows of just six establishments that have had public-health orders to change their behaviour and WorkSafeBC, the workplace watchdog, has issued roughly 200 formal notices over various infractions.

“There literally is nothing more that we can do,” he said of Vancouver’s nightlife industry, which he estimates contributes about $100-million to the local economy and employed 2,500 people before the pandemic.

On a recent tour of more than 30 bars and lounges, Mr. Guignard said he found four breaking the rules and had to refer one to the health authority after the owner refused to comply.

Jude Kusnierz has turned the parking lot at Beaumont Studios, located just outside downtown, into an outdoor space for people to enjoy local musicians, comedians and cabaret performers. Her non-profit, which runs the venue, has been able to weather the financial storm of COVID-19 thanks to government subsidies and a co-operative landlord. She said she doubts whether many venues could survive another industrywide shutdown.

“If we don’t have cultural spaces, we don’t have community, really, and we’d spend our time meeting in Safeways,” she said.

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