Teron Mohan

A large group of bar owners and operators have threatened to sue the State over a recent move to reduce their hours of businesses under ongoing COVID-19 public health regulations.

In the pre-action protocol letter sent to Health Minister Terrence Deyalsingh and the Office of the Attorney General yesterday afternoon, lawyers representing the Barkeepers and Operators Association of T&T (BOATT), which is headed by interim president Teron Mohan, claimed that the change announced soon after such establishments were allowed to reopen late last month was inherently discriminatory.

According to the letter, which was obtained by Guardian Media, the association is contending that the move gave businesses that operate as restaurants/bars an unfair advantage, as they are allowed to open until 10 pm as opposed to 8 pm for businesses that are solely considered bars.

“The enforced premature closure is, therefore in effect, a form of artificial socio-economic engineering by the Government, as it is forcing and re-channelling our client’s customers into restaurants and bars which are owned by big businesses compared to the average man/woman who owns and operates a small bar,” attorney Ganesh Saroop said in the letter.

Saroop likened the policy to another during the COVID-19 pandemic which forced the closure of roadside food vendors, such as those selling doubles, while restaurants with fixed locations were allowed to operate.

The association also took aim at the justification given by Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley and National Security Minister Stuart Young, who claimed that the decision was based on incidents where such establishments and their patrons had ignored social distancing guidelines when the Government allowed bars to reopen for business.

“It should be noted that there is no law regarding social distancing and in any event, bar owners have been advised by BOATT to demarcate tables and chairs in a manner that is consistent with social distancing,” Saroop said.

Saroop also pointed out that video footage that was used by Young to justify the small adjustment in opening hours came from a restaurant/bar in central Trinidad and not a sole bar as contended. He also questioned the current validity of the regulations, as he claimed that the conditions that existed when they were made under the Public Health Ordinances of 1940 in March changed.

“None of these provides grounds that could justify the COVID-19 Regulations having regard to the fact that there has never been community spread of the virus in T&T (ie by or amongst persons who been physically living in the country since the closure of borders), the borders have been closed since March 2020, and there is ample provision as described above for the mandatory quarantining of persons entering the country,” Saroop said.

He also claimed the regulations are unconstitutional, as they affect his client’s constitutional rights, including the right to the enjoyment of property. Saroop claimed that such could have been lawful if it withstood Parliamentary scrutiny.

“None of the regulations faced the Parliamentary sieve nor satisfied the constitutional rigours,” he said.

Through the lawsuit, the association is seeking a declaration that the policy is null, void and of no legal effect.

Saroop gave the parties until 4 pm tomorrow to respond to the legal threat before he files the lawsuit.

The association is also being represented by Anand Ramlogan SC, Renuka Rambhajan and Douglas Bayley.