The Delhi High Court Tuesday allowed for the time being the use of herbal hookah in restaurants and pubs in the national capital, saying that COVID-19 restrictions cannot be permitted to continue at the cost of livelihood. Justice Rekha Palli, who was hearing a batch of pleas by several restaurants and bars against the prohibition on the sale or service of herbal flavoured hookahs, said that prohibitions imposed on account of the pandemic “cannot go on forever” and noted that the authorities have already permitted cinema halls and swimming pools to function at full capacity.
The court clarified that it was granting permission as interim relief and the same is subject to the petitioners giving an undertaking to it that they would strictly follow COVID-19 appropriate behaviour while serving herbal hookah.
“Subject to the petitioners filing an undertaking, till the next date of hearing, the respondent (Delhi government) will stand restrained from interfering with the service of herbal hookah,” the judge ordered.
“In case of any change in COVID-19 situation, the respondent will be at liberty to move court,” she added.
The court directed the Delhi government to file its response to the petitions and asked it to “take a call” if other restaurants and bars approach it for permission to serve herbal hookah in compliance with COVID-19 protocol.
Separate petitions were filed by Breath Fine Lounge and Bar, TOS, R High Speedbar and Lounge, Verandah Moonshine, and Sixth Empirica Lounge in West Punjabi Bagh, saying that they were serving herbal hookahs for which no licence is required as they are totally without tobacco but the police were still conducting raids, seizing equipment, and issuing challans.
The petitioners challenged the order of the Joint Commissioner of Police (Licensing Unit) prohibiting the sale or service of herbal flavoured hookahs.
The Delhi government has been opposing the pleas saying that for a single mistake, the entire Delhi would have to pay a heavy price, and allowing hookah consumption in public places may spread COVID-19 since people would be sharing it.
“Now you have opened everything. Cinema hall, full capacity. Swimming pool, full capacity. You want to ban hookah, you can do it but not on the ground of COVID,” the judge told Delhi government counsel Santosh Kumar Tripathi.
“What is happening? These people (petitioners) don't have to survive? I've given you a long rope. But there has to be a limit. You can't have such restrictions at the cost of livelihood. I know we can't put our guards down but this can't go on forever,” Delhi government counsel reiterated the official stand that herbal hookah cannot be permitted to be sold and used for now.
The petitioners contended that the continuation of the ban on the sale and use of herbal hookah was unjustified.
The high court had earlier directed the Delhi government to reconsider the ban and file an affidavit.
The Delhi government had then told the court this is not a time to “lower our guards” for an unnecessary service that is likely to contribute to the transmission and severity of coronavirus.
The court was informed that under the latest order of October 14, the Delhi government had decided to continue the prohibition on the use of hookah, with and without tobacco i.e. herbal hookah, water pipes, and other hookah-like devices, in all public places including hotels, restaurants, pubs, etc.
The Delhi government had clarified that Delhi Disaster Management Authority has permitted only those activities, such that the opening of cinema halls, restaurants, etc, that are essential, concern the social and economic well-being of the public and can be followed in compliance with all COVID appropriate behaviour.
However, the very nature of the mechanism of hookah increased the risk of transmission of the virus, it was stated.
The matter would be heard next on February 9.
(With inputs from PTI)