Some of the most frequently asked questions we have received amid public health order restrictions are, “What is 25% capacity?” “Now we’ve moved to 50% capacity – what does that mean and how do I adjust that?” “How am I supposed to manage that – have a staff person counting people at the door as they come and go?” “How do I even know my ‘usual capacity;?” The issue is that what constitutes ‘usual capacity’ has been subject to interpretation.
Within the context of building construction and building codes, ‘occupancy’ refers to the use, or intended use, of a building or portion of a building for the shelter or support of persons, animals, or property. There are 2 classifications with respect to occupancy that are considered when calculating the limit on how many people can be present in the room/area at once under normal circumstances:
- Occupancy load: Refers to the number of people permitted in a building at one time based on the building’s floor space and function, with additional considerations placed on the means of egress.
- Maximum occupancy: Refers to the maximum number of people permitted in a room measured per foot in correlation with the number of available exits, with each exit accommodating only a certain number of people before bottle-necking occurs. (The Manitoba Fire Code stipulates that the upper limit cannot exceed 0.4 m2 per person)
The occupant load is used to determine Building Code requirements that may be applicable in each space, such as the number of exits, exit signs, and bathrooms required, whether a fire alarm or emergency lighting system is required, and as specific as the type of hardware required on an exit, access to exit doors, or the required direction of door swing. Some exceptions to these calculations are determined based on the ‘use’ of the space and if the space is considered ‘assembly space’ such as:
- Assembly occupancy means the occupancy or the use of a building, or part thereof, by a gathering of persons for civic, political, travel, religious, social, educational, recreational, or like purposes, or for the consumption of food or drink (e.g. restaurant, private club, schools, churches, day care centres, etc.)
- In buildings with sleeping facilities such as hotels, motels, and dwelling units, a figure of 2 persons per bedroom is used to determine the occupant load
- A designer may choose to design a building or a space to accommodate more or fewer people than the figures arrived using standard calculations. If a figure other than one derived from these calculations is used, the occupant load must be posted on the occupancy permit issued to your business
Under Public Health Order restrictions, the official Maximum Occupancy, as listed on the Occupancy Permit, thereby mathematically provides a business with a ceiling under which they are required at minimum to reduce occupancy. However, depending on the nature of their business and the layout of their space, a business may also have to implement measures to ensure that members of the public can reasonably maintain a separation of at least two metres from others.
An example directly from a previous Public Health Order stated:
5(1) A retail business may open if the operator of the business
- limits the number of members of the public at the business to 25% of the usual capacity of the premises or 250 persons, whichever is lower; and
- implements measures to ensure that members of the public at the business are reasonably able to maintain a separation of at least two metres from other members of the public.
It is the word ‘usual’ within the Public Health Order that causes problems with interpretation. Most businesses are not operating at Maximum Occupancy on a regular basis, so the business owner is then left to ascertain at what occupancy levels they can operate at in keeping with the Public Health Order requirements, mandating a percent of capacity ceiling AND a separation of at least 2 meters from other members of the public.
What the guidance document and/or the Occupancy Permits provides is at least a place to start when a business is developing their operating plan based on the permitted capacity, AND social distancing measures, thereby taking both factors into consideration as stipulated under the current Public Health Order. Moreover, if there were any dispute with respect to capacity, and the business owner could illustrate that:
- At minimum, the number of people at their place of business at any given time was XX% or less of their Maximum Occupancy;
- That 2m of space was also factored into these calculations; and
- The business owner took steps to ensure that the public maintains social distancing requirements (i.e. arrows for direction down aisles, and marks on the floor when waiting to pay, etc.);
then they could sufficiently demonstrate that they have made every effort to comply with the Public Health Order restrictions.
NOTE: Under Public Health Orders issued in Manitoba, the maximum capacity ceiling does not include employees.
NOTE: This information has been extracted from a bulletin issued by the Office of the Fire Commissioner, developed to provide a general overview of the requirements of the Manitoba Fire Code (MFC) 2011 to determine occupant load for existing buildings.