Public health officials are warning of potential fines for skirting public health orders as images from a St. John’s bar overflowing with patrons on the weekend draw criticism on social media.
Photos shared widely online Monday show dozens of people crowded outside and on the balconies of popular George Street bars The Rob Roy and Konfusion, and another shows people packed close together on a dance floor.
The provincial Department of Health responded with a statement expressing concern about the scenes captured on the downtown bar strip known for attracting big crowds on weekends.
The department said chief medical officer of health Dr. Janice Fitzgerald would meet public health and other officials Monday afternoon to “determine next steps.”
Bars and lounges are currently allowed to open in the province with reduced capacity, if physical distancing can be maintained.
In its statement, the department pointed to the possibility of fines ranging from $5,000 to $50,000 for businesses that fail to comply with public health orders.
“There is a responsibility on both owners and patrons who choose to go to nightclub establishments to follow public health guidelines,” the statement read.
Premier Dwight Ball said he was disappointed to see the photos after working with businesses to reopen responsibly during tough economic times.
“Some of the images that I saw over this weekend (were) not something that illustrates to me that people were making responsible decisions,” Ball told reporters after an event in Springdale, N.L.
He said public health measures have been put in place for everyone’s safety, not “so that you can go and have a party somewhere.”
NDP legislator Jim Dinn, whose district includes the George Street area, said the images speak to the need for continued, strong communication about why public health rules are necessary.
“It’s horrified an awful lot of people,” Dinn said by phone.
He said residents and businesses need to be reminded of the risks of spreading the virus now that the first wave of the pandemic has passed in the Atlantic province.
Newfoundland and Labrador currently has no known cases of COVID-19, and restrictions on businesses and social activities have been gradually lifted over the past month.
Last week, the province loosened its strict border closure to allow visitors from other Atlantic provinces. The premier has said the rest of Canada could soon be welcomed to visit the province if all goes well.
Dinn said clarity is needed on how these visitors will be monitored, adding that a potential COVID-19 cluster from a bar or nightclub would be a challenge for contact tracers.
That scenario has emerged around the world as countries continue to battle the highly infectious virus.
A cluster of more than 100 COVID-19 cases in South Korea that emerged in May was linked to a man who visited five nightclubs and bars in a night before testing positive for the virus.
Similar stories have come out of the United States in recent weeks, leading some authorities to order the indoor portion of bars closed.
In East Lansing, Michigan, an outbreak tied to a pub near Michigan State University spread to nearly 140 people.
The country’s top infectious disease doctor told a Senate panel last week that Americans should stop gathering at bars given the risks.
“Congregation at a bar, inside, is bad news,” Dr. Anthony Fauci said. “We really have got to stop that.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 6, 2020.
– With files from The Associated Press