Saskatchewan’s Ministry of Health says it will not pursue charges against the organizer of an event that took place Sunday in a southeastern village, despite the event having violated the province’s ban on gatherings of more than 10 people during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“There are no plans to take enforcement action at this time,” a ministry spokesperson said Tuesday.
“Event organizers are reminded that these events cannot occur without adequate controls being put into place to ensure people do not gather in groups larger than 10 and are maintaining social distancing.”
Meanwhile, some people who attended said participants at the Carievale, Sask., event did practice social distancing and that the community is being unnecessarily roasted. The village is located 257 kilometres southeast of Regina, near the Manitoba border.
A newly-opened local restaurant, Tailgate Dining, served pre-orders of food for pick-up and invited residents to “cruise” the village’s streets in their classic cars on Sunday between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. CST.
The restaurant owner’s mother, Jennifer Henderson, said she organized the event to lift spirits in the community during the pandemic.
“Come cruise Main Street in Carievale,” read one promotional Facebook post from the restaurant, which the Village of Carievale then echoed in a Facebook post of its own.
Some photos of the event posted to social media shows at least two clusters of more than 10 people gathered together outside of their cars.
One of the photos showed a group of more than 10 people milling about some cars. Another showed a group of more than 10 people in line outside the restaurant.
Laura Stanley said she attended the event. She lives on a farm south of Carievale.
“What I witnessed was people coming and grabbing their burgers and immediately leaving,” Stanley said. “It wasn’t a gathering of people that were staying and visiting.
“The one picture in particular of the people lined up outside of the venue, the line was never, ever longer than that that I saw. [What] most people don’t know is the people in that line, the majority of them were family members that I’m aware of, or people that were roommates living together.”
Families mostly stayed in their cars, Stanley said.
“I did see families with little ones out of their cars, but not near anybody else.”
As for her group, “There was a bit of a wait period for your food to be ready and until it was ready, we just drove in our car around town.”
Stanley shared a photo of herself at the event.
“You can see behind me: no overcrowding,” she said. “And that’s my husband’s car and my family in it.”
Stanley said the event came after Premier Scott Moe shared new guidelines around gatherings late last week. Those guidelines said families could choose two to three other households to visit with, but maintain a small circle and practice physical distancing.
The overall cap at gatherings remains at 10.
‘We all know the risks’
Like Henderson, Stanley pointed out that the restaurant had “very clear social distancing guidelines.” The posters and Facebook postings for the event reminded people to “maintain that social distance.”
“I just don’t know how this has gotten so blown out of proportion,” Stanley said of the event. “That village is a pretty incredible place to live.”
The Hendersons “are incredible community supporters,” she added.
Another person who said he attended the event and posted several photos of it afterward said his participating was a matter of personal choice.
“We all know the risks,” he wrote on Facebook. “We feel safe in our town and it shows. Living in fear 24/7 is ridiculous. Everyone needs to do what they feel is right for them personally to get through a time like this….
“I feel safer in my town standing in line than standing in line at Walmart or Costco, so let me be.”
Charges a ‘last resort’: RCMP
It’s ultimately the RCMP that issues any charge over a public health order violation, in consultation with the province.
“Decisions to issue tickets are based on the situation,” the spokesperson from the health ministry said.
“In most cases, the enforcement agency will try to achieve compliance through education, awareness and seek the co-operation of the people involved. When this fails, the issuance of tickets is an option.”
Cpl. Rob King with the Saskatchewan RCMP said that when the police force receives a complaint about a public health order being breached, they investigate alongside the Saskatchewan Health Authority.
“A charge could be issued if the evidence is present, but that is the last resort,” King said. “Charges are always the last resort in any type of investigation.”
‘Lots of opportunities for education’
That emphasis on education over punishment was echoed by the Regina Police Service.
Police in that city received 81 calls about alleged gatherings of more than 10 people between April 17 and April 28: reports of groups in houses, people in yards or parks, congregants in churches.
Many of the calls were unfounded or unsubstantiated, said police spokesperson Elizabeth Popowich.
During this past weekend alone — from April 24 to April 26 — the Regina Police Service received 11 calls about groups in houses, parking lots or churches and 14 calls about groups in parks, at the Saskatchewan Legislature grounds or at schools or playgrounds.
“Lots of opportunities for education; no tickets issued,” Popowich said.
Over the same weekend, the Saskatoon Police Service took 12 calls about alleged breaches, including calls about nine large gatherings.
Nobody was charged.