Newfoundland and Labrador Health Minister John Haggie is backtracking — somewhat — from a political fundraising event he held Wednesday night, hours after he urged the public to be cautious about holiday gatherings.
However, Haggie stopped short of saying the event should never have happened in the first place.
"Look, there is only one thing you can say in a situation like this, I'm sorry," Haggie said Thursday afternoon.
Haggie was then asked if he regretted organizing the event, held Wednesday evening at Bally Haly, a golf and country club in the east end of St. John's.
"I think hindsight is always 20/20 … for the fuss it caused, it probably wasn't worth it," he replied.
The two-hour, $250 per person reception at Bally Haly came just hours after Haggie spoke at a live COVID-19 briefing, warning that people considering attending some New Year's Eve gatherings "are actually putting yourselves in harm's way."
Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Janice Fitzgerald has also stressed repeatedly people should not be holding or attending their usual holiday events, such as workplace Christmas parties, amid the pandemic.
The Gander Liberal District Association organized the event in an effort to increase its campaign war chest. Haggie represents Gander district in the House of Assembly, and is running again in the next election, expected to be held next year.
Public health guidelines were followed: Haggie
Haggie first took to Facebook Wednesday night to explain his actions, saying it was in line with current gathering guidelines, and that 23 people attended the event in a venue with a capacity for 220. About 40 people had initially been expected.
He echoed the sentiment when speaking to reporters about it on Thursday.
"The optics of this are really the crux of the whole issue. We followed public health guidelines in a venue built for 10 times the number [of attendees]," he said.
He repeated that it was the perception, presumably of the public, that caused the flap.
"This is around perception and optics. We held ourselves to the same standards we ask everyone else too," he insisted.
He later added, "But because of the perception, there was an issue."
Fierce backlash on social media
Haggie's attendance Wednesday night provoked a swift outpouring of condemnation on social media.
Numerous people called out Haggie on Twitter and Facebook, including prominent Ottawa-based physician Yoni Freedhoff, who speaks out on public health, obesity and other issues.
"How it started vs how it's going," tweeted Freedhoff, a professor of medicine at the University of Ottawa.
"How can anyone expect public to just do right thing (putting aside fact for large swath of same, that's often made impossible by social determinants of health) when even gov. officials regularly don't? This is Newfoundland's Minister of Health."
Furey fine with it
The event was advertised to also include an appearance from Premier Andrew Furey, but the premier's office told CBC News Furey did not attend the fundraiser — due to a scheduling conflict — and the event's poster had been made prior to "recent developments," referencing an increase in COVID-19 cases in the province in the last few weeks.
However, when reporters pressed him on the issue Thursday, Furey said the event followed the rules.
"My understanding is that it was 20 people in a space that could accommodate 200. It was well within the public health COVID parameters," he said.
Both Furey and Haggie said that restaurants are still open, and that events are still being hosted at such places.
However, Fitzgerald has repeatedly said in recent briefings that she continues to hear of employers planning staff Christmas parties and that she is advising them to cancel events this year.
Minister's event showed 'huge disconnect': NDP
PC Leader Ches Crosbie said that while public health guidelines may have been followed, the Liberal fundraiser should not have gone ahead.
"Although he may have complied with the letter of the law … he did not comply with the spirit of it," Crosbie told reporters Thursday afternoon.
Crosbie said charities and organizations have put off their own fundraising events, community groups are struggling financially, and Haggie was out of touch for going ahead with his own.
"That shows there's one set of rules for the Liberal Party and another set of the rules for the rest of us," he said.
NDP Leader Alison Coffin called it a "huge disconnect."
"You lead by example, not bad," she said.