Slowly but surely, life is getting back to something like normal for the Ashcroft Legion, which is now planning what its annual poppy campaign and Remembrance Day service will look like this year. Branch president Darrin Curran knows that the Ashcroft branch is lucky to be able to keep the lights on and the doors open — unlike many other branches across Canada — but fears what another COVID-19-related shutdown might bring.
It’s been something of a roller-coaster year for the branch. The ride began in January, when a film crew moved into town to shoot an episode of the TV series The Twilight Zone. They rented an empty piece of property owned by the branch and used it for several weeks to construct a replica of Zion United Church, and also rented the Legion basement as a staging area for extras during two weeks of filming.
“Things were going great with the Twilight Zone in February,” says Curran. “COVID-19 was just coming out, but no one anticipated what was coming in March.
“We made some money on the rental of our properties, and were able to sock that money away. After everything happened with COVID-19 and the shutdown, we knew that we could go into that money, but it was something we wanted to avoid. It’s nice having it, and we want to keep it as a nest egg going forward in case something happens with COVID-19 down the road.
Curran says he found out from the Journal that the branch had to close during the week of March 16, when word came down from the provincial health officer that all bars and restaurants had to close. The paper had called Curran to find out how this affected the Legion.
“I’d heard rumours about having to close down, and then you called [with the news]. I got hold of my bartender on duty, and said ‘You have to clean up, cash out, and go home. This is what’s going on.’” The rest of the staff were told the news, and then there was nothing to do except wait until they were told they could reopen.
On May 20, after more than two months of being closed, the Legion was able to welcome guests once more, but Curran says it was “absolutely not the same.”
“Before we could reopen, WorkSafeBC came out with regulations. There were safety plans we had to develop, and we did so immediately.” Among the precautions they put in place were plastic shielding around the bar, for the safety of the bar staff, rules about contact tracing and tracking, sign-in sheets, sanitizing, and more.
The decision was made to cut back the hours, to limit the possibility of staff being exposed. “That was a WorkSafeBC recommendation. The longer you’re open, the more customers you have coming in. That’s good, but also could be dangerous.”
Legion command kiboshed all sports, and it’s only recently that the branch has been able to reintroduce darts and pool.
“We had to develop safety regulations and rules around those two sports. You have to have your own darts or pool cue. They’ve just allowed crib to reopen, and the players bring in their own crib boards and cards, because they can’t use the Legion’s.”
There are plans to get the popular Saturday meat draws going again, and Curran says that when they restart they will look different to how they did before.
“We plan to have gift certificates for Safety Mart instead of meat. It’s a lot less handling by different people than having packages of meat. It’s another way we can make this happen, and it’s a safer way to do it. Plus it gives people an option. In the past, if you won the draw and it was pork chops and you hate pork chops, you still had to take them.
“Now you’d have an option, and it’s not restricted to just meat. You’d get a blank gift certificate for X amount of dollars, so if you want to buy a lot of tins of Campbell’s chicken soup you can go ahead. We see several positives in doing it this way compared with the traditional way of doing the meat draw. Some people won’t like it, but that’s life.”
Friday dinners restarted on Sept. 11, and the plan is to have them every two weeks for the time being, with a maximum of 50 people — including staff and volunteers — in the main seating area at one time.
“The major thing is how many people are allowed in the kitchen at one time. People in there are gloved, and wearing masks, but we can only have two people in there at a time because of the amount of space we have. That’s why we’re doing barbecues right now; the main part of the cooking can be done outside. We want to get back to some dishes we did, but they have to be ones that are easy to do.”
Curran says that the biggest fear is doing something outside the provincial regulations and getting in trouble for it.
“We don’t want the Legion to face fines or shut down. We’re following all the rules, or enhancing them, as best we can. We do get a lot of people from out of town coming in, and we don’t want our servers or the townsfolk exposed. And 70 per cent of our clientele is older. We don’t want to pass something on to them.”
Curran says that this year’s Remembrance Day ceremony will look a little different. “We’ll be having a ceremony at the cenotaph. If people come down to watch we’ll ask for social distancing, and if they can wear masks, please do. Wreathes will be laid by Legion staff ahead of time, we won’t be having the parade around the block as usual, and we’ll have a smaller colour party.”
The branch still plans on offering the traditional breakfast before the ceremony, and the logistics of that are being worked on. “I think we’ve come up with an idea to make it work,” says Curran. “A lot of people come out for that and look forward to that, but the seating and serving will look different.”
The annual poppy campaign is going ahead as usual. “All volunteers will wear masks and gloves. Several locations have said they’ll still allow someone there to sell poppies, and we’ll have wreathes and boxes — which will be sprayed down before they leave the Legion — in different locations.”
Poppy masks designed for the Royal Canadian Legion have been a hot seller across the country. While the Ashcroft branch has a limited amount of Legion merchandise for sale, Curran says they don’t have the masks, and advises anyone looking for them to order direct from www.legion.ca.
He adds that not tying up a lot of money in stock that sits on shelves is one way the Ashcroft branch manages to keep its head above water.
“I’ve heard that there are Legions in very grave trouble. There’s one that’s looking at selling their building and moving into another club building, and some have opened and closed and reopened depending on their finances. Lots of Legions are struggling big time, especially in communities smaller than us.”
He notes that Legions are not entitled to a lot of the COVID-19 benefits that other businesses are eligible for.
“How is that fair to us? We still pay taxes and contribute to the community. The money isn’t going into anyone’s pocket, it’s going back to the Canadian people, to the community.
“There are things people don’t see because they’re behind the scenes. If one of our veterans or the spouse of a vet needs medical care elsewhere we have money in an account just for that to help them out. We have scooters we lend out to vets and their widows, and we pay for the upkeep of those scooters, and pay for the batteries with Legion money. That’s just another thing we do for people in our community to help them out.”
He says the best thing people can do to help the Legion survive is come out and support it.
“Come out for dinner, come out and have a pop. We’re a social club, somewhere to go to meet and talk with people, not a club based on drinking alcohol. Every dollar that comes across the bar is a benefit and helps us out in the long run.
“And I want to give a huge thanks to those who’ve come out and supported us since we reopened. We’ve been busier in the last couple of months since reopening, and that’s helped us out a lot and made it so we can keep the doors open. It’s nice to see people back, and have that normalcy.”