As London, Ont., braces for a weekend that usually sees thousands gather for celebrations near Western University, local health officials have issued a new set of orders related to COVID-19 that comes equipped with increased fines for rule-breakers.
On Tuesday, the Middlesex-London Health Unit (MLHU) announced a pair of Section 22 Orders, orders that allow public health units to implement localized rules within their jurisdiction, for food and drink establishments, as well as organized public events and social gatherings.
The orders, which come into effect 12:01 p.m. Thursday, mirror much of what’s already in place under Step 3 of Ontario’s reopening plan.
For food and drink establishments, which includes bars, nightclubs and restaurants, patrons must wear a mask or face covering at all times, except when eating or drinking while seated in a designated area. Businesses also have to ensure these areas have at least two metres between them or are separated by an impermeable barrier such as plexiglass.
The other order re-iterates provincial limits on gatherings, which is currently capped at 25 people indoors and 100 people outdoors.
In a media release sent after the orders were announced, the MLHU says the rules apply to any organized public event, informal public event or social gathering, “whether held on a street or private dwelling, including houses, apartment buildings, condos and post-secondary student residences.”
The orders come days before Fake Homecoming (FoCo) celebrations are expected to take place, an informal bash that often takes place in student neighbourhoods near Western.
The first FoCo in 2016 was organized in response to the university shifting its Homecoming (HoCo) weekend to mid-October, a time when students often deal with exams, in an effort to reduce unsanctioned street parties.
This weekend will see HoCo return to its original late September date, lining up with its “fake” counterpart which is expected to take place on Saturday.
While an estimated 25,000 people had attended FoCo in 2019, last year saw students skip out on celebrations following warnings from local officials tied to concerns related to COVID-19.
In a news conference on Tuesday, medical officer of health Dr. Chris Mackie says while the potential for parties this weekend played a role in the MLHU issuing the new orders, “these parties are already occurring.”
“We saw them two weeks ago, we saw them last weekend, we are seeing unfortunately relatively large gatherings. We haven’t seen anything yet that has reached the 20,000 (person) level that some of the past (FoCo) gatherings have, and we sincerely hope that we don’t,” Mackie said.
As for large gatherings last weekend, Mackie cited a video posted to Twitter that showed what appeared to be a massive, non-distanced crowd attend a concert at The Belfort, a nightclub near downtown.
“There’s no masks here, it’s very close contact, this is actually in a managed facility, so this is a licensed-facility that had that sort of gathering happening as part of what is approved under the Reopening Ontario Act,” Mackie said in his description of the video. “We anticipate that we may see similar gatherings, outside of those managed facilities, this coming weekend.”
“We’re not against partying, we’re not against drinking, we’re not against dancing, this is really about doing those things as safely as possible.
As for why the MLHU issued orders that reiterate provincial rules already in place, Mackie said the new orders will offer an “additional path for enforcement” locally.
The local orders will see new financial punishments for violations, with individuals facing a fine of $750 and business or organizations facing a fine of $1,000.
Repeated violations can result in escalating fines, which are capped at $5,000 for individuals and $25,000 for businesses or organizations.
“We know that’s not going to solve all of the problems that exist, but for some people, we hope that that will help them to make a better decision,” Mackie added.
Other local officials have also expressed concern for potential FoCo celebrations this weekend, including Ward 6 Coun. Phil Squire, who represents an area of London that covers Western University and its surrounding neighbourhoods.
“I really am worried this year because my constituents, police, certainly administration at the city, have said things feel different and things feel like that people are determined to do something and that determination may lead to unfortunate events,” Squire told Global News.
“I think what we’re hearing is that a year was taken off last year for COVID, that students in large numbers feel this is a rite of passage, and they’re going to do it.”
Mayor Ed Holder added that the increased fines lend a “serious price” to breaking the rules.
“It’s not an option that we wanted, there’s nobody that said this would be a really preferable thing, but we’ve been put into this position because of two weeks and three weeks ago,” Holder said.
“I’m urging students to do the right thing.”
In a response from Western issued late Tuesday afternoon, Chris Alleyne, the university’s associate vice-president of housing and ancillary services, said the school fully supports “all measures meant to keep the community safe.”
“The continued threat of COVID-19, violence and personal safety are reasons we are asking our students to choose to avoid unsanctioned mass gatherings. We ask that they keep their circles small, be with friends they trust and show respect and care for each other, and for the London community,” said Alleyne in a statement sent to Global News.
“In addition to staff, volunteers and significant security on campus for this weekend, Western also has a number of physical and mental health supports available for students.”