‘COVID Island’: Locals have sinking feeling about boat parties in Kelowna

A large boat party on Okanagan Lake near Kelowna, B.C., on the July long weekend. Mark van Hees/Submitted

Boat parties on Okanagan Lake near Kelowna, B.C., are drawing the ire of local residents as COVID-19 case counts surge in the B.C. Interior’s tourist hot spot.

Concerned citizens are submitting photos to Global News showing several vessels tied together and multiple people congregating on watercraft while ignoring physical distancing guidelines.

Kelowna resident Mark van Hees snapped a photo on July 4 showing nearly 20 boats, including a house boat, side-by-side near the William R. Bennett Bridge.

“A few of us saw it and referred to it as ‘COVID Island,’” he said of the party barge.

“The boats are packed and everybody is partying and you’re clearly not social distancing.”

Read more: Okanagan region leads B.C. in number of new COVID-19 cases

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Hees says the boat party lasted at least five hours before the vessels dispersed. He questions why authorities did not break up the mass gathering.

“There’s enforcement on the water. It’s surprising that they are not able to locate these large boat parties and monitor them from a social distancing standpoint, and break them up,” he said.

Another boat party occurred on Okanagan Lake near Kelowna, B.C., on Saturday, July 25. Submitted

Ken Woinoski says he witnessed atleast eight boats and three seadoos tied together on Okanagan Lake near Kelowna. Loud music blaring from the party could be heard from the shoreline, he said.

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“We were a little bit disappointed at the people not being responsible with respect to COVID-19,” Woinoski said.

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Ryan Donn, a Kelowna city councillor, says while he’s frustrated by the Okanagan boat parties, he agrees with the province’s approach to focus on education and voluntary compliance.

“Social behaviour is very tough to manage and I like the fact that the province allowed us to have a light regulatory framework,” Donn said.

Read more: ‘Don’t come here to make new friends’: Kelowna, B.C., mayor on spike in COVID-19 cases

“Dr. Bonnie Henry has said it’s not going to be through stricter rules that we get better at this.”

Another city councillor, Mohini Singh, urges residents and visitors to be socially responsible.

“I plead with young people who come here: please maintain social distance, wear masks, try and stay within your bubble, wash your hands. COVID can effect us all. This is very serious,” Singh said.

The City of Kelowna says while bylaw officers can’t levy fines against people who attend mass gatherings or fail to physically distance, the city is ramping up its public education campaign.

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This week, a city team will visit beaches, boat launches, parks, recreation facilities and other areas where people gather “to remind everyone to take the proper precautions and be respectful of others’ possible health risks,” Kelowna mayor Colin Basran said during a press conference on July 23.

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On Monday, Dr. Bonnie Henry, B.C.’s provincial health officer, said she’s amending the public health order on mass gatherings to limit the number of people in short-term rentals and vacation accommodations to a maximum of five visitors.

Read more: Occupancy numbers at all vacation, rental and resort properties in B.C. will soon be restricted

“That means you cannot have a large group of people over to party in your hotel room or on your boat during this period of our COVID summer,” she said.

Kelowna RCMP says if a person has concerns related to COVID-19 non-compliance on a boat they should contact the health authority to report it.

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Interior Health did not respond to specific questions about proactive enforcement of public health orders and guidelines, but urged people to “keep any gatherings small and to people they know.”

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According to data collected by the BC Centre for Disease Control, the Okanagan saw 107 confirmed cases of COVID-19 from July 10 to 23, accounting for more than half of all cases recorded in the region since the pandemic began.

Atleast 86 cases of COVID-19 are linked to the Kelowna outbreak, which began around the July long weekend, and more than 1,000 British Columbians are in self-isolation after coming into contact with someone who tested positive.

The median age of a COVID-19 patient in the Interior Health region is the youngest in the province, at 38 years of age.

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