The City of St. John's council lead on special events says he's concerned by images emerging of the George Street Festival this week, and is questioning whether the COVID-19 mitigation plan approved by the province is being followed.
Photos and videos of the downtown concert series have been widely shared across social media, showing large crowds tightly packed together with little to no physical distancing and mask wearing in place.
According to Coun. Shawn Skinner, festival organizers submitted a COVID-19 mitigation plan to a committee of municipal and provincial representatives, which included the use of several entrances to avoid crowding, fenced-off gathering areas to limit mingling and recommended mask wearing.
The plan was approved by the province. But based on what Skinner says he's seen, he doesn't believe it's being enforced.
"The pictures that I saw were, to me, a little bit shocking. I was a bit surprised when I saw the event in operation," Skinner told The St. John's Morning Show Tuesday."The COVID mitigation plan, at least what I've seen, [it] appears it was not followed."
In response to those concerns, festival organizers at the George Street Association reiterated a commitment to public safety Monday, saying they have shared a "safety first" message on social media and the festival's website.
According to a news release, public safety measures currently in place include sanitation stations at each of the multiple gates, increased event security and staff and encouraging mask wearing and COVID-19 vaccination.
"We have been seeing these recommendations actioned by some attendees, and we have received a great amount of positive support from our festival guests," the release read. "For the remaining nights, we will remind all guests of the opportunities available to maintain a socially safe experience."
Enforcing COVID guidelines a 'provincial responsibility': Skinner
When asked about what responsibility the city has to make sure guidelines are followed, Skinner said city staff are in place to make sure event rules are being enforced. However, he said guidelines relating to COVID-19 fall to the provincial government.
"It's a provincial responsibility. We sat with our special events advisory committee, which has representatives from the provincial government on it, and we reviewed the event prior to approval," he said. "That COVID plan had very specific things involved that the organizers were supposed to do.
"The provincial government are responsible for ensuring that … those steps are done, no different than we are for the things that we're responsible for. What we are responsible for, it is my understanding, was followed."
Asked about the situation Monday, Premier Andrew Furey said the province will be looking into whether protocols were followed.
"Dr. Fitzgerald, the government, has put in place significant recommendations … and it's expected that people abide by them," he said.
While the festival will continue in the coming days, Skinner said the event will likely serve as a factor in the decision-making of future events. He said all parties, including those who attend the festival, have a responsibility to protect the public, and would like to see a response from organizers to see how concerns will be addressed.
"How is it that people were maskless? How is it that people were gathered together so tightly? Was the fencing in place? Were the zones that were supposed to be in effect actually applied and did people stay to their zones?" Skinner asked.
"In some cases, maybe they did and maybe the plan was inadequate … I think they have the responsibility to respond to that and tell us how they're going to make it better as they go forward."