Saunders Farm fined $3,500 for violating COVID-19 rules, shifts Frightfest to drive-thru experience
OTTAWA -- The popular Halloween attraction "Frightfest" is now a drive-thru experience after Saunders Farm in Ottawa's west-end received more than $3,500 in fines for violating COVID-19 gathering restrictions.
The west-end farm shifted the Halloween attraction to a drive-thru event on Friday after Ottawa Bylaw and Regulatory Services determined "Frightfest" is an outdoor public event, meaning it's restricted to a maximum of 25 participants on the 100 acre farm at one-time.
"As a pumpkin farm during the daytime, we are not restricted to gathering rules. But, as a Frightfest at night, we are restricted to gathering rules and this is where there's confusion," said Mark Saunders, owner of Saunders Farm, during an interview with Newstalk 580 CFRA "Ottawa Now" with Kristy Cameron.
"So at nighttime, we decided to completely pivot and go to a drive-thru experience, which we've had in our back pocket for a number of months and it was something that was considered this summer."
Saunders Farm on Bleeks Road in Munster launched its annual "Frightfest" on Sept. 25.
"Over the past week, there was a number of emails and started with a few fines from the city, letting us know we were breaking gathering rules," said Saunders Friday afternoon.
"We did not agree with that because we didn't think our business, our farm as a place of business and an essential business in Ontario, needed to follow the gathering rules like other essential businesses out there. We needed to follow the distancing rules, those are two different distinctions in the very unclear laws that keep coming and changing every week for us."
Saunders says Saunders Farm received four, $880 fines from Ottawa Bylaw and Regulatory Services for violations of the COVID-19 rules.
Bylaw Services issued the first ticket on Friday, Oct. 16. Saunders tells CFRA that Ottawa Bylaw delivered three more tickets on Oct. 21 for alleged violations on Oct. 16, 17 and 18, saying Bylaw visited the farm undercover and saw more than 25 people on the farm.
"The fines were for having more than 25 people on our 100-acre property," said Saunders.
"It was not clear if it was say on our haunted hay rides or in two of our areas that have no gathering restrictions – our patio of our restaurant and our farm market. It was never clear, and there's another day to sort of fight those. Courts aren't open yet."
In a statement to Newstalk 580 CFRA on Saturday, Ottawa Bylaw and Regulatory Services Director Roger Chapman confirmed that since Oct. 16, Bylaw has issued four charges to Saunders Farm for contraventions of the Reopening Ontario Act.
"While Emergency Orders permit regular farm operations to occur at a larger capacity, any other type of outdoor public event, including Frightfest, is restricted to a maximum of 25 participants, regardless of the size of the property," said Chapman.
The owner of Saunders Farm says they will fight the fines, adding Ottawa Bylaw threatened "much larger" fines if they opened Frightfest again without changes.
The COVID-19 restrictions limit gatherings to 25 people at outdoor venues in Ottawa.
"There isn't anything specific about farms in any of the legislation, and when the gathering laws refer to a place, that's it 25 people in a place and that place is not defined. So it could be downtown Bank Street in a parking lot or on a 100-acre farm in the western edge of Ottawa, in the countryside," said Saunders.
"From our standpoint, we were following the guidelines as a place of business."
When the city did not agree with Saunders Farm's arguments about gathering limits, Saunders said "Basically, telling us we could only have 25 people on the farm made us literally do a 24-hour pivot to a drive-thru experience."
Saunders tells Newstalk 580 CFRA he estimates the change to a drive-thru experience will cost the farm "more than $100,000."
"On a year where we're down 70 per cent in our income, it's quite I'd say devastating but I know many other businesses that are much, much worse off."
Ticketholders are invited to email Saunders Farm to confirm that they will be attending the drive-thru experience. A carload of guests will be allowed to enjoy "Frightfest."
Saunders Farm says any guest not interest in attending the drive-thru experience can seek for a refund.
Frightfest is scheduled to run until Nov. 1.
The Saunders Farm daytime operations will continue as scheduled, with a few agriculture modifications.