With 41 COVID-19 cases in the past two days, N.L. election tensions are high

·3 min read

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. — With an election on Saturday in Newfoundland and Labrador, a sudden outbreak of COVID-19 in the provincial capital city is stoking public anxiety and political fireworks.

Officials reported 30 new cases of the disease on Tuesday, after 11 cases were reported on Monday. During a briefing in St. John's, chief medical officer of health Dr. Janice Fitzgerald said the spike in case numbers reinforces the "certainty (of) community transmission in the metro region, and that we will see more in the coming days."

Fitzgerald has held two public briefings this week, and for the first time since the legislature was dissolved and an election was called on Jan. 15, she was joined both days by two prominent Liberals: party leader and incumbent Premier Andrew Furey and Health Minister John Haggie.

Their decision to reappear at the briefings has drawn the ire of Progressive Conservative Leader Ches Crosbie, who says it's opportunistic and "politically inappropriate."

"It's giving them a stage now on which to strut their stuff within days of an election vote taking place," Crosbie said during a policy announcement in St. John's on Tuesday.

Daily new case numbers hadn't hit 30 since last March, when the pandemic was first detected in the province. At that time, a cluster of cases grew from a funeral in St. John's, eventually affecting nearly 200 people. "That is the likely scenario in this case," Fitzgerald told reporters Tuesday. "We are just a few days into this right now, and we're already seeing 30 cases."

Furey, a surgeon, told reporters he and Haggie have stopped campaigning to work on COVID-19.

"There are real anxieties out there, and we want to make sure that we're here to help people get through this, and provide whatever assistance we can to support Dr. Fitzgerald," he said. He dismissed Crosbie's comments, saying there was no advantage for him to take part in the briefings.

"Being in a caretaker government scenario, the premier is still the premier, the minister is still the minister," he said. "These are higher numbers than we're used to, and we recognize the significance and seriousness of it ... that's why we're here. It's not being political whatsoever."

When asked by reporters if he'd invite Crosbie or NDP Leader Alison Coffin to address the public in a health briefing, he said they've had plenty of opportunity to address the public throughout the campaign.

Kelly Blidook, a political scientist at Memorial University in St. John's, agreed there may not be much advantage for Furey to be assuming a central role right now. In fact, Blidook said the fact that Furey needs to be there is "a failing of his own."

"He's the premier who called the election. He took the risk," Blidook said in an interview. Furey has also made his government's success in keeping the pandemic at bay central to his campaign, and any significant change in that pattern could be damaging, Blidook said.

During Tuesday's briefing, Fitzgerald said there were between 1,200 and 1,500 people self-isolating in connection with the three clusters of COVID-19 cases growing in the St. John's region. The province's chief elections officer, Bruce Chaulk, said his team was exploring voting options for those people if they haven't already voted in advance.

"They're preliminary (explorations), but things could change very quickly," Chaulk said in an interview Tuesday.

Blidook worries the worsening COVID-19 situation will discourage many more from voting, whether they're quarantining or not. "I didn't think beforehand that we would see a lower turnout, but I think now we almost certainly will," he said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 9, 2021.

The Canadian Press