Newfoundland and Labrador is under lockdown, and Saturday’s provincial election will continue with only mail-in voting, officials said Friday, as the province battles the B117 variant of the coronavirus.
In an emergency briefing Friday evening — the second time officials addressed the province in one day — Dr. Janice Fitzgerald, the chief medical officer of health, said tests had confirmed the widespread presence of B117 for the first time.
The “variant of concern” is responsible for this week’s mass outbreak in the capital.
Confirmation of the variant’s arrival prompted lockdown measures across the province Friday and has suspended in-person voting in the election, delaying the ballot count by at least two weeks.
B117 was first discovered in the United Kingdom. It’s believed to be more contagious than the original coronavirus strain.
“We know that if not controlled, it becomes a predominant strain within weeks of first appearance,” Fitzgerald said. “This is concerning and serious. But we have the ability to overcome it.”
Effective immediately, the entire province is at Alert Level 5, with all but essential businesses closed, Fitzgerald announced.
The decision expands previous measures implemented in the St. John’s area this week, returning Newfoundland and Labrador to the same rules it followed for weeks last spring.
Nine more cases have been added to the active total since the afternoon briefing, Fitzgerald said. Many of them are teenagers with mild or no symptoms.
There are now 269 active cases in the province, with 253 of them reported in the past five days.
The outbreak has come as a rude awakening for a province that regularly reported active total caseloads in the single digits, and over the summer survived a 42-day stretch without a single active infection.
Most cases, until now, have been linked to travel outside the province.
The province had 390 total cases of COVID-19 in all of 2020.
Level 5 rules
Fitzgerald said the discovery of the variant answered questions she had about the speed and scope of the virus’s spread. Other provinces are battling the mutation, with experts in Ontario warning B117 could become the dominant strain there before April.
Due to the variant’s contagious nature, Fitzgerald said the speed of isolation measures is critical to contain it.
Residents are now expected to remain inside their own homes as much as possible and restrict gatherings to no more than five people.
All non-essential businesses and facilities, including playgrounds, gyms, salons, cinemas, restaurants, bars, private health-care clinics, and retail stores that do not provide the essentials of life, are now closed.
Elective surgery and non-emergent medical treatments are also suspended.
Watch the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador briefing:
“At this point, stay in your bubble,” Fitzgerald said, simplifying the strict public health directions that Newfoundlanders and Labradorians haven’t faced since last May.
“We’re back here for a little while. I’m hopeful that we won’t have to lock down like we did previously.”
Health Minister John Haggie said vaccine rollout will continue as promptly as possible, but the timeline largely depends on delivery schedules, which have proved spotty throughout the country.
Election day battered by outbreak
Bruce Chaulk, the province’s chief electoral officer, issued a media release immediately after the briefing that he had suspended in-person voting in all 40 districts across the province.
“In-person voting will not be rescheduled,” said Bruce Chaulk in a statement. “The election will now shift exclusively to voting by mail.”
The deadline to apply for mail-in special ballots has been extended to Feb. 15. Voting packages must be received by Elections NL by March 1.
The embattled election hasn’t weathered the outbreak well, with poll workers resigning en masse, delaying election day for the province’s most populated region.
Liberal Leader Andrew Furey, campaigning to reinstate himself in the premier’s chair, has repeatedly come under fire for triggering an election prior to widespread vaccine availability.
Furey was compelled by law to call an election within a year of taking over as the head of the Liberal Party, with his deadline in August. When he dropped the writ in January, the province had a steadily low caseload.
As the outbreak worsened this week, Furey repeatedly defended his election timing.
“I haven’t given much thought to the election,” Premier Andrew Furey said Friday evening, prior to Chaulk’s announcement and just as news broke of B117’s arrival. “I understand there are questions about the election … but we don’t have the answers.”
Accountability ahead: opponents
Fitzgerald said she has spoken with the province’s chief electoral officer but would not disclose the advice she gave him when pressed during the briefing, saying it’s not her jurisdiction.
Furey’s opponents had been calling for an election delay this week and applauded the decision to move to special ballots. NDP Leader Alison Coffin expressed concern, however, that some people may face barriers in registering for mail-in voting by Monday.
“We may see some court challenges come from this,” Coffin said. “What I’m more concerned about is how irresponsible Andrew Furey’s actions were.”
Progressive Conservative Leader Ches Crosbie declined an interview but said in a statement his party would discuss Furey’s election timing “another day,” saying the public health emergency is the priority.
“Our province deserves a thoughtful conversation about why it took so long for us to reach the right decision
in postponing this election and how we hold our political leaders accountable,” the statement read.
Earlier on Friday, officials reported 50 new cases of COVID-19, with the vast majority in the St. John’s metro region. The province has reported higher-than-average new cases since Monday, when rampant community spread was first identified.
Thousands of people are now in isolation, including 300 health-care workers.