New Year’s Eve at Ottawa bars: No hugs, no kissing, no midnight toasts

Recent restrictions aimed at curbing the spread of the Omicron variant are putting a damper on Dec. 31 parties as Ottawa club owners try to figure out how to ring in the new year without a countdown, midnight kiss or even boozy rendition of Auld Lang Syne. 

Of course, the biggest wrench in any of their plans is the fact that bars must close at 11 p.m., and stop serving alcohol at 10 p.m., well short of the traditional midnight celebration. Patrons are also prohibited from singing — Auld Lang Syne or anything else — and dancing. 

For many, it’s reason enough to call off the festivities. Among the bars that have cancelled Dec. 31 plans are Nuvo Lounge on Dalhousie Street, Moose McGuire’s in Orléans, Mavericks Bar on Rideau Street and Sonny’s Bar and Grill on Baxter Road. A comedy show at the city-owned Shenkman Arts Centre in Orléans is also expected to be postponed. 

Other establishments, including Irene’s Pub, have not decided. Michael Estabrooks, who owns the Bank Street pub, was in the process of reinstalling Plexiglas barriers between tables and in front of the stage to comply with the province’s recent restrictions when asked about the New Year’s Eve show with Bruce Barry and the Econolines, an Ottawa-based Neil Young cover band. 

“We are undecided as of yet,” Estabrooks said. “Clearly, it’s going to look a lot different if we do go forward with any live music. Our plan right now is to go forward with an early show with limited seating and physical distancing, but that is obviously subject to change between now and then.” 

If it happens, the pub’s capacity would be limited to just 40 people, about one-third of its regular capacity. Proof of full vaccination would be required. So far, he said about half a dozen people have changed their minds about attending and requested refunds, which were issued. 

The rapidly spreading Omicron variant is not only making people nervous about going out, but, as small-business advocate Mike Wood pointed out, it’s also a concern for bars and restaurants that want to keep everyone safe, staff and patrons included, and their reputations intact. 

“From a public-relations standpoint, it’s hard to come back from an outbreak, even if they’re following all the rules,” Wood said. “I think the risk is high for owners.” 

Adding to the uncertainty for Ottawa nightlife operators is the fact that Quebec closed its bars and nightclubs at 5 p.m. Monday. Some are speculating that Ottawa Public Health may do the same thing. 

The decision to stay open or close down would be easier if there were programs in place to help the businesses, owners say. 

“To be honest, if I had it my way and they were to offer some of the subsidies that were in place last year, I’d just shut the pub down and try again come January,” Estabrooks said. “We’re in limbo until the authorities give us guidance.” 

At the spacious Brass Monkey on Greenbank Road, owner Scott Ruffo was also waiting to hear if the province or OPH would institute further restrictions. An ABBA tribute band is booked for Dec. 31, and, as of Tuesday afternoon, Ruffo was still hoping to go ahead with the gig, partly because it’s been a tough time for his staff.

“Some of my staff have jobs at other restaurants and they all pretty much got laid off this week,” said Ruffo, who celebrates his 50th birthday on Christmas Day. “If we don’t get a couple of nights (of business) between now and New Year’s, it’s going to be painful.” 

He joked that, if he is able to go ahead with the Dec. 31 show, he may advertise it as a Newfoundland New Year’s Eve because the countdown would happen 90 minutes early. 

In the end, if you are among those determined to go out and ring in the New Year, and you find a place that’s open, Wood advises following the rules: Wear your mask, show your vaccine status, don’t stand up and drink, don’t sing or dance and keep your distance from others who are not in your bubble. 

“I think we all have a social responsibility to celebrate cautiously and carefully if we are going to go out,” he said. “If the owner says you need to stay seated because his livelihood is on the line, then respect the place of business that you’re in. Have fun, but let’s all follow the rules.” 

lsaxberg@postmedia.com

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