Hundreds of people crowded Vancouver's Granville Entertainment District for Halloween festivities on Saturday night, drawing sharp rebukes online and defying warnings from health authorities that parties should be kept small to prevent COVID-19 transmission.
Videos posted to social media showed throngs of costumed revellers gathered along Granville Street between Robson and Nelson streets. Many sang and danced close to each other.
The Vancouver Police Department said extra officers were deployed in the area for Halloween, but additional resources had to be called from around the city when the number of partiers grew larger than expected.
Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry tightened the rules last week on private gatherings, limiting them to households plus a "safe six." The maximum number of attendees allowed at events is 50 and only if physical distancing is respected.
The videos drew dismay online. Some questioned why police hadn't enforced the gathering restrictions and dispersed crowds.
Vancouver police said it wasn't safe to issue social-distancing tickets based on the size of the crowd and its hostility.
Const. Jason Doucette noted most people in the crowd were peaceful, but those who acted out were removed from the area.
Police arrested several people for minor offences like causing a disturbance.
"We are disappointed that party goers did not listen to the advice of our Public Health Officer and chose to gather in large crowds along the Granville Mall," Doucette wrote in a statement.
There were no injuries reported.
B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix said Monday that seeing footage of the crowds was irritating.
"I think it was a visible symbol of people not following the rules of gathering, which are limited to 50 people," he said. "Obviously, it was there for all to see."
Dix said a bigger problem is house parties and private gatherings, which are not visible on social media but are fuelling the province's rising case numbers.
Risk of transmission
It will take up to two weeks before health officials can determine whether the crowds fuelled a rise in cases, said Caroline Colijn, an infectious diseases specialist at Simon Fraser University.
Colijn said she's concerned about cases spreading from Fraser Health, B.C.'s hardest-hit region, to downtown Vancouver, which is linked by SkyTrain to cities like Burnaby and Surrey.
"With a crowd that size, it's probably very likely that some people there had COVID-19 and maybe didn't know it," she said.
Colijn noted outdoor transmission isn't as big as risk as indoors, pointing to large protests earlier this summer in Vancouver. There were no cases linked to those gatherings.
But the participants then were largely masked. Colijn said the Halloween crowds were shouting, singing and drinking in close proximity, which increases the risk of transmission.
Man arrested for breach of peace
At one point, officers noticed a Range Rover driving along Granville Street with passengers out of their seats, sitting on the sides of the windows.
When officers tried to stop the SUV, the passengers got out and swarmed the officers, police said.
The group grew to about 30 people, prompting police to request more officers. One man jumped on the hood of the police car and tried to provoke the crowd, police said.
The man was arrested for beach of the peace and taken to jail.
Coun. Sarah Kirby-Yung said the city looks to the provincial health officer for direction and noted there is no mandate for wearing masks and crowds gathering outside in public spaces.
"It's quite difficult for Vancouver to do it as one city," she said. "I think it would be more effective when we get a provincial order that comes down."
Kirby-Yung said she's worried about the risk of more restrictions and the impact it would have on small businesses.
"They can't sustain another shutdown," she said. "They simply will not make it."