Premier Jason Kenney continued to insist on Thursday that he, three cabinet ministers and his staff members were following the rules when they dined outdoors on an 11th-floor terrace at the Alberta legislature grounds in Edmonton earlier this week.
Kenney, Health Minister Tyler Shandro, Environment and Parks Minister Jason Nixon, Finance Minister Travis Toews, interim chief of staff Larry Kaumeyer and deputy chief of staff Pam Livingston were photographed by an anonymous tipster without their knowledge.
The photos, which were sent anonymously to Alberta media outlets Wednesday morning, have caused a firestorm of controversy — both because the group appears to not be following Alberta's Stage 1 rules for outdoor social gatherings, and for the fact that the gathering took place in the space nicknamed the "Sky Palace" during a spending scandal involving former premier Alison Redford.
"We made every reasonable effort to be physically distant outdoors rather than doing an indoor meeting fully compliant with the rules," Kenney said under prolonged questioning by Opposition MLAs in question period Thursday.
"We encourage all Albertans to get out there, enjoy the summer as we continue to relax the public health measures."
The photos show the group sitting around a table covered in a white tablecloth. A 40-oz bottle of Jameson's whiskey figures prominently on the table, along with glasses of red wine and bottles of San Pellegrino sparkling water.
Stage 1 reopening rules, which came into effect earlier that day, allow outdoor social gatherings of up to ten people, but they still must be physically distanced.
Kenney, in Thursday's question period, repeatedly cited the ten-person limit for gathering outdoors. However, he did not mention that individuals must still be at least two metres apart.
No one in the photos appear to be distancing from the others.
Hinshaw deflects questions
Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw deflected reporters' questions about whether Kenney was following the rules during Thursday's COVID-19 update.
She declined to say whether what she saw in the photos was compliant with regulations, arguing that she couldn't make that determination without being there in person.
Hinshaw said that everyone "sometimes make mistakes."
"Where we're doing our best to follow the rules in place and there is a mistake made, that we acknowledge that and move on and make sure that that is part of how we're modelling the way forward," she said.
"Whether or not a mistake was made, really that comes down to that question of distancing. It's clear that that two meters is required in outdoor social gatherings."
Downplaying the outdoor dinner, Kenney scoffed at a statement by Edmonton-Glenora NDP MLA Sarah Hoffman that he and his ministers brought their "finest booze" to the table that night.
"I can assure the member that Jameson's is a nice Irish whiskey, but it's not the finest," he said. "It's a budget liquor."
But Edmonton-City Centre MLA David Shepherd, the NDP Opposition health critic, said Kenney was drinking on an outdoor terrace while looking down on the small businesses who are following the public health rules, despite the impact on their bottom line.
"Is this premier so entitled, so arrogant, that he thinks such a small sacrifice was too much for him to bear?" Shepherd asked.