By ROSALYN ROY
– with files from René J. Roy
SOUTHWEST COAST – After the province saw over 250 cases of COVID-19 last week, it likely came as no surprise that Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Janice Fitzgerald, raised the provincial alert level to 5. On Friday evening, Feb. 12, Fitzgerald called a second emergency news briefing to confirm that the outbreak had been identified as a B117 variant strain, which is believed to be more contagious.
“We know that if not controlled, it becomes a predominant strain within weeks of first appearance,” said Fitzgerald.
She also stated that all new cases since Feb. 5 are believed to be the B117 variant, which would include the single new case in Western that was announced last Wednesday, Feb. 10. That case is believed to be travel-related and not part of the St. John’s metro outbreak.
By the time Fitzgerald moved the province back to alert level 5 on Friday evening, she had already ordered special measures that affected local facilities like the Bruce II Sports Complex, which closed last Wednesday.
On Thursday, the Western Kings hockey team, based in Corner Brook, announced that their players had been ordered into isolation. A player on an opposing team had tested positive, and the Kings have players from around the region, including Port aux Basques. That news was confirmed by Mayor John Spencer via e-mail later that evening.
“The notification came officially today. This is all part of the umbrella of contact tracing relating to the surge on the East Coast,” stated Spencer via e-mail. “The hockey team based out of Corner Brook (Western Kings) were on the East Coast for a tournament this past weekend.”
Meanwhile Hockey NL suspended operations throughout the province indefinitely.
“Upon learning on Feb. 5 and 6, 2021 that some participants within our organization had possibly been exposed to the Covid-19 virus, and in compliance and agreement with Public Health advisories, Hockey NL made the decision to cancel a number of events,” stated Craig Tulk, Executive Director of Hockey NL, in a news release. “This has quite understandably created some concern within our membership and our communities.”
Despite rumours to the contrary, schools remained open on the Southwest Coast with the exception of Belanger Memorial, which had water problems.
“St. James Regional High School was not closed yesterday (Feb. 11), and remains open today in Scenario 1 (with enhanced safety protocols) and we continue to liaise with our partners in public health,” stated Cheryl Gullage on behalf of the Newfoundland and Labrador English School District (NLESD).
Despite NLESD’s reassurances, on Friday afternoon many students at St. James High School in Port aux Basques chose to walk out of class. Ashton Bragg, 16, was one of those students.
“A lot of people walked out, yes. I was one of them,” said Bragg, citing the walk out was for, “Safety mostly.”
After Fitzgerald’s Friday evening presser, NLESD announced via social media that it was switching to Scenario 3, which is online learning for all K-12 schools in all regions.
In Port aux Basques, the Salvation Army closed its community kitchen, its Thrift Store, and will not accept donations. Port aux Basques closed its town office to the public, the Public Library closed, the waste management depot at Cape Ray halted drop off for residential customers, and even private businesses like the Hungry Newfie restaurant, located in the Hotel-Port aux Basques, decided to close its doors for the next two weeks. DRL buses are also suspended indefinitely.
Stores that remain open are restricting the number of shoppers permitted inside at any given time. Some have also mandated that face masks must be worn and will no longer permit shields, after a mid-January news brief by Fitzgerald and Minister of Health Dr. John Haggie clarified that they were not suitable to prevent spread of the virus.
“Face shields are not an alternative to masks, as they are open and let droplets escape,” noted Fitzgerald.
Dr. David Thomas, Chief of Staff at the Dr. Charles L. LeGrow Hospital in Port aux Basques, urged diligence. Like Fitzgerald, he cautions people to behave as though the virus is everywhere, even on the Southwest Coast.
“It is safe to assume that COVID-19 could be located and spreading in all regions within our province. It is not a time for panic, but complacency will be our downfall. Everyone should behave as if the individual next to them unknowingly has the virus,” said Thomas. “We should always follow Dr Fitzgerald’s advice and wash our hands frequently, avoid touching our face, practice physical distancing and wear a mask in public indoor spaces.
Downloading the COVID Alert app will also provide an extra layer of defence and help our public health staff with contact tracing. This is definitely not a time for gatherings or parties. Stay safe.”
The new measures also resulted in the cancellation of in-person voting across the entire province. Shortly after Fitzgerald’s Friday evening presser, Chief Electoral Officer Bruce Chaulk issued a statement.
“In-person voting will not be rescheduled,” stated Chaulk. “The election will now shift exclusively to voting by mail.”
Chaulk also extended the deadline to vote by mail.
“We have extended the application deadline to Monday, February 15 at 8:00 p.m. Anyone requiring assistance with the application process is encouraged to call our toll free number 1-877-729-7987.”
All completed voting kits must be returned to Elections NL on or before Monday, March 1, 2021.
Premier and Liberal Party leader Andrew Furey has taken considerable heat on social media and during the press conferences for his decision to call the election. In a separate media-only Zoom meeting following last Wednesday’s press conference, he pointed out – not for the first time – that when the election was first called the province was still enjoying a relatively low number of cases and had been for quite some time.
“As I said many times in the last week, we had come out of Christmas and New Years without significant spikes and the best evidence available to me then was that this was a safe time to do it, after consultations,” said Furey. “You’re never confident until its over, but I’m confident in our party, I’m confident in the platform that we put through, I’m confident in the vision for the province that we’ve laid out. It’s an unfortunate circumstance that we’re in now with the virus.”
Later that same evening Andrew Parsons (Burgeo-La Poile) pointed out that in 2020, even the opposition was in favour of an election.
“The other parties were saying bring on the elections. Ches Crosbie’s team had the signs bought. They were saying bring it on, bring it on,” said Parsons via phone interview. “If you didn’t call it, this would still happen. This is not election related.”
He also pointed out that we’ve had cases in the interim, and there was no way to predict such a large outbreak, and that there’s always pros and cons to calling an election at any time.
“We have had outbreaks – not of the same proportion – but we have had outbreaks,” said Parsons via phone interview, “Even without the outbreak, campaigns are stressful, busy, anxious times.”
Parsons noted that NL is not the only province who has called an election during a global pandemic.
“The fact that we’ve had three other provinces have elections, with higher case numbers, and managed them successfully leads me to believe that this one could have went the same way. However the reality that we’re faced with is that we do have an outbreak. I do think that Public Health is the number one priority of everybody.”
Parsons has been urging voters to opt into special ballots from the outset. He says that in-person voting hasn’t been very high for years anyway.
“You’re barely hitting 50 percent participation,” he said. “A lot of people don’t vote by choice, or by inability for various reasons.”
Turnout for special ballots is up. In 2019, just over 19,000 people opted for special ballot. Even before Chaulk halted all in-person voting, that number increased to 33,000.
In the near future, Parsons would like to see electronic voting offered as an option.
“I see it as a greater opportunity to participate.”