Newfoundland and Labrador election officials have cancelled in-person voting a day before many polling stations were set to open, in response to an alarming rise of COVID-19 cases in the province.
Elections Newfoundland and Labrador said Friday evening that the provincial election will now shift entirely to mail-in voting, with ballots being accepted until March 1.
Voters have until Monday at 8 p.m. to apply for voting packages, according to a statement from chief electoral officer Bruce Chaulk, extending a deadline originally set for Saturday night.
Election officials had already postponed the vote for 18 of the province’s 40 districts due to the spread of COVID-19, mainly due to a loss of election workers unwilling to work amid fears of exposure.
The decision came shortly after health officials moved the entire province back into Alert Level 5, the highest level under Newfoundland and Labrador’s pandemic plan.
Over 200 new cases of COVID-19 have been detected over the past three days, including 100 on Thursday alone — by far the highest daily count since the pandemic began. The cases are largely centred around the greater St. John’s metro area.
Chief medical health officer Dr. Janice Fitzgerald said Friday that the B.1.1.7. variant of the virus, which was first discovered in the United Kingdom, is behind the sudden spike in infections and accounts for all 248 new cases reported over the past seven days.
The variant is more infectious than the initial strain of COVID-19 that has killed four people in Newfoundland and Labrador since early 2020, though it is not believed to be more deadly.
The province’s major political parties praised the actions of both Chaulk and Fitzgerald Friday, yet Progressive Conservative Leader Ches Crosbie criticized the delay in making a decision on in-person voting.
“Our province deserves a thoughtful conversation about why it took so long for us to reach the right decision in postponing this election and how we hold our political leaders accountable,” he wrote. “But that discussion must wait for another day.”
A spokesperson for the Progressive Conservatives told Global News it was unclear what the delay in voting would mean for further campaigning leading up to March 1, and was hopeful more information would be provided in the coming days.
In her own statement, NDP Leader Alison Coffin reiterated her party’s position that the election should not have been held until August, “when most of the province’s people had been vaccinated.”
“I remain convinced that it was irresponsible for Andrew Furey to call this election in the first place,” she said, referring to the Liberal Party leader who is running for re-election as premier.
“There was absolutely no need, aside from the hope of political gain, for him to call this election in mid-winter at the height of a pandemic.”
A statement from the Liberals about the election was not immediately available.
Newfoundland and Labrador is the fourth province to hold an election since the pandemic took hold in Canada.
The other three — New Brunswick, British Columbia and Saskatchewan — did not see delays in their election dates and were held during a relatively quiet period in September and October, when cases were not rising as quickly compared to the late fall and early winter.
However, all three provinces did end up seeing spikes in new infections following their elections, despite expanded mail-in voting.