N.L. elections officer delays voting in areas hit by COVID-19 outbreak

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ST. JOHN'S, N.L. — Amid climbing COVID-19 case numbers, Newfoundland and Labrador election officials have postponed voting in Saturday’s provincial election for nearly half the province's ridings.

Elections NL said in a news release Thursday that with community spread in the St. John's region, polling station workers were backing out in droves over fears of contracting and spreading COVID-19.

In-person voting has been postponed in 18 of the province's 40 ridings stretching from St. John's and its neighbouring city of Mount Pearl to the town of Carbonear, about 100 kilometres away.

"Many election workers have resigned out of fear of interacting with the public on election day," the release said. "We cannot hold traditional polls without the support of these people."

Voting will proceed as scheduled in other parts of the province, but the results will not be released until all voting in the province has concluded at an undetermined later date, the release said. Mail-in voting options have also been extended.

The changes come after chief electoral officer Bruce Chaulk sent a letter Thursday to party leaders and independent candidates saying the growing community spread of COVID-19 constituted "a serious occupational health and safety issue" for poll workers.

"The current significant outbreak has had a profound impact on our ability to conduct a fair election, and immediate action is required to be taken," he wrote.

Provincial health authorities reported a record-breaking 53 new and 32 presumptive cases of COVID-19 Wednesday and introduced partial lockdown measures in the St. John's region.

After an initial outbreak and lockdown last spring stemming from a funeral in the provincial capital, pandemic life for Newfoundlanders and Labradorians had been relatively normal, with daily case numbers in low single digits. That changed this week, after an outbreak began in Mount Pearl. On Wednesday, officials said there were 110 active cases in the province — 94 of which were announced this week — and they expect that number to grow.

Progressive Conservative Leader Ches Crosbie said in a statement Thursday that Chaulk's decision "creates two classes of voters, and is therefore wholly unfair." Crosbie had called for the election to be delayed, but reiterated that he believes if voting is to be postponed, it should be postponed across the province.

"Simply put, some voters will have more time than others — and more access to information — to make their electoral decision," he said. "That is wrong and calls into question the integrity of the electoral process."

Earlier Thursday, Liberal Leader and incumbent Premier Andrew Furey issued a statement saying he recognized that voters in the St. John's area felt unsafe and he hoped Chaulk, together with the province's health authorities, could find a "safe and proper path forward."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 11, 2021.

The Canadian Press