REGINA — Walking into Bushwakker Brewpub during a lunch-hour rush, Darlene Woywoda looked for the vaccinated section.
Woywoda, 69, was meeting some friends, and they decided to dine in the Arizona Room — a 50-seat space reserved for guests who are fully immunized against COVID-19.
The feeling for Woywoda was reminiscent of the days when hostesses would greet diners with the phrase, "Smoking or non-smoking?" before cigarettes were banned from restaurants.
"My husband and I were talking that businesses will have to do something like that with COVID-19 vaccinations," Woywoda said.
"Except the smoke can infiltrate from one area to another, whereas here (the air) is more contained."
The Arizona Room at Bushwakker Brewpub was once a space reserved for birthday and retirement parties, but then the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Customers no longer wanted to gather in big groups, said bar manager Grant Frew.
The room is now for the exclusive use of the fully vaccinated — despite Saskatchewan ending its vaccine passport requirement on Feb. 14.
Perks in the Arizona room include private washrooms, servers who are also fully vaccinated, and a ventilation system separate from the restaurant's main room, which can seat another 200 people both vaccinated and non-vaccinated.
"I've been told to never introduce politics and religion into a bar, but inadvertently that has seemed to happen, which has sparked quite a bit of controversy," Frew said in an interview.
Bushwakker introduced the separate section after longtime customers of the 31-year-old brew pub said they wouldn't return for a while after the province did away with its vaccine passport.
"When I heard that, well, it didn't make me feel very good obviously. We're trying to dig ourselves out of this economic catastrophe that the pandemic has caused to the entire hospitality sector," Frew said.
"We thought why don't we create this space where they can feel safe, and comfortable, because that's always first and foremost what we want to do."
The president of the Saskatchewan Hotel and Hospitality Association says the move is a good idea.
"Every operator has to make decisions that are in the best interest of their business," said Jim Bence, who said Bushwakker Brewpub is, as yet, unique in its approach.
"Bushwakker is responding to what their customers are telling them and adapting their model to fill that need."
While most people have praised the pub's decision, Frew said there has been pushback online. People have suggested the business is segregating people or accusing the brew put of creating division.
"That is not the case at all. This is simply a room we wanted to provide for those with health concerns. It's a temporary measure. Segregation and division was not our intention," said Frew, who added that unvaccinated patrons can still dine in the main room.
The Brewhouse is likely to keep its policy in place for a few more months, he said. Saskatchewan is preparing to lift its mask mandate on Feb. 28 and will no long required those who test positive for COVID-19 to isolate.
Nazeem Muhajarine, an epidemiologist at the University of Saskatchewan, said many customers are looking for alternatives now that government policy no longer mandates that vaccination status be shown.
"It's a workaround," he said.
"They're not comfortable mixing yet with people who are not vaccinated, and they still don't want to get (the) Omicron (variant), even if it may be less severe than Delta."
Fully vaccinated sections or not, Muhajarine said, people can still reduce their risk of catching COVID-19 while dining out by sticking to the basics: wear a mask, test yourself before going out and stay home if sick.
For her part, Woywoda said she loves the room for the fully vaccinated and is encouraging other businesses to do the same.
"This just alleviates all of our concerns."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 21, 2022.
Mickey Djuric, The Canadian Press