N.L. health minister facing backlash over in-person fundraising event

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ST. JOHN'S, N.L. — Newfoundland and Labrador's health minister has apologized for attending an in-person fundraiser on the same day health officials urged employers to cancel their holiday parties.

In a statement emailed Thursday, Health Minister John Haggie said though public health protocols were followed at the event, he understands elected officials "are held to a different standard."

"I apologize for any frustration this may have caused and understand the concerns," he said.

An advertisement for the Gander Liberal District Association fundraiser event at a golf club in St. John's surfaced on social media Wednesday evening. The event was billed as an evening with Haggie, and Premier Andrew Furey was slated as a special guest, although he was ultimately unable to attend.

The ad drew sharp and immediate criticism online, with people posting about their own cancelled events.

In a Facebook post Wednesday night, Haggie addressed the criticism, saying just 23 people were present in the 220-person venue, and strict public health protocols were followed.

"The current guidelines for gatherings state that events run by a recognized business or organization can have up to 100 people, depending on the capacity of the venue," he said. "We had well below the required limits for gatherings at this time, and the large space was chosen to ensure appropriate physical distancing."

He said guests wore masks when they weren't seated at their tables, just as they would in a restaurant, and all attendees completed questionnaires to be used for contact tracing.

In an email Thursday, Meghan McCabe, a spokeswoman for Furey, said the premier was unable to attend the fundraiser because a previously scheduled virtual meeting ran long. "There’s definitely confusion as to the guidance, but safe, physically distant events within public health guidelines are fine," McCabe said. "Restaurants continue to be open, for example."

During Wednesday’s provincial COVID-19 briefing with Furey and Haggie, the province's chief medical officer of health, Dr. Janice Fitzgerald, advised against large gatherings.

"I caution against planning any extensive functions or gatherings at this time, except for those with your close contacts," Fitzgerald said. "I continue to hear of workplace Christmas parties being organized, which is concerning for me."

She appealed to the public to find "new and creative ways to celebrate the holidays without parties."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 3, 2020.

Sarah Smellie, The Canadian Press