HALIFAX — A pair of anti-mask rallies planned for the Halifax area this weekend have been blocked by a court-ordered injunction sought by the province.
In a decision released Friday, Nova Scotia Supreme Court Justice Scott Norton said the anticipated harm from the rallies would be imminent because of the potential spread of COVID-19.
The decision came just before health officials announced 117 new cases of COVID-19 and one more death attributed to the novel coronavirus. Officials said a man in his 80s in the Halifax area is the 72nd person to die from COVID-19 in the province.
Norton said there is a greater public interest in maintaining the integrity of current public health restrictions than permitting the rallies to go ahead as planned.
A group called “Freedom Nova Scotia” was scheduled to hold a rally at Citadel Hill, in Halifax, at 1 p.m. Saturday, while a "Worldwide Freedom Rally" was to take place later that day on a baseball field in Barrington, N.S., at 6 p.m.
Norton said the groups are "uninformed or wilfully blind to the scientific and medical evidence" used to support the public health restrictions.
"Their plan to gather in-person in large numbers, without social distancing and without masks, in contravention of the public health recommendations and orders shows a callous and shameful disregard for the health and safety of their fellow citizens," the judge said.
Norton noted the province's hospitals are filling with COVID-19 patients, adding that health-care workers have been "working tirelessly" for 14 months to manage the health crisis. He said schools and many businesses have had to close, leaving people out of work.
"It is appropriate to include notice that law enforcement officers will arrest and charge anyone in breach of the prohibitions," he said.
Premier Iain Rankin said he was pleased with the judge's decision. "I am personally all for freedom of speech, but I will not allow the select few to jeopardize our ability to crush this third wave," he told reporters.
The premier said despite existing health measures and fines, the court order provides "extra teeth" and gives police more authority to take action, including arresting those who violate the order.
Chief medical officer of health Dr., Robert Strang testified in court as an expert witness on the risks posed by large gatherings during which people don't wear masks.
"We are in a serious situation — we're in the middle of a global pandemic," Strang told reporters Friday. "We cannot let a small group of individuals who wilfully dismiss the science … the evidence around how their actions can put people at significant risk."
Rankin expressed concern about the mounting strain on the hospital system, saying there are currently 95 people in hospital because of the disease. "We now have more hospitalizations than we had in the first and second wave combined," he said.
Nova Scotia Health CEO Dr. Brendan Carr said in a separate briefing Friday that modelling indicates about 60 people will be in intensive care at the peak of the current outbreak, with about 140 people in acute care, "which is our current capacity."
Tony O'Leary, Nova Scotia Health's director of critical care, said he remains confident that if the modelling is correct, his teams across the province have the resources to provide critical care to any patient who needs it.
O'Leary, however, said about one-quarter of the patients coming into intensive care units are quite late into the progression of the disease. "If we could get them in (hospital) earlier, we could get them into a unit quicker and reduce their symptoms using high-flow oxygen," he said.
Meanwhile, health officials announced that COVID-19 vaccine appointments had opened Friday for people aged 35 and older. The 35-to-39 age group, which comprises about 63,500 people in the province, is now eligible for the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccines.
Nova Scotia announced a milestone in its COVID-19 vaccination program on Thursday after administering a 400,000th dose of vaccine.
Nova Scotia has 1,537 active reported cases of COVID-19.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 14, 2021.
— With files by Michael Tutton in Halifax.
Keith Doucette, The Canadian Press