British Columbia

Concerns raised about 'festival vibe' in Kelowna despite cluster of COVID-19 cases

Interior Health says private parties are a common link in most positive cases, and young people are the most affected.

Interior Health says private parties are common link in most positive cases

Kelowna is still being pushed as a tourism destination for British Columbians, despite a recent COVID-19 exposure event that involved tourists. (Andrew Glass/CBC)

A business owner in downtown Kelowna is raising concerns about the "festival vibe" she's seeing in the city, despite a recent cluster of COVID-19 cases in the community.

Thirty-five cases of the virus have now been linked to private events in the city between late June and early July, and Interior Health has issued a warning about possible exposure at several downtown businesses.

But Chantal Couture, who owns two retail businesses on Kelowna's Bernard Avenue, says the spike in cases doesn't seem to have impacted the number of people she's seeing enjoying the Okanagan summer.

"We did see the day after the news broke that it seemed to be quieter, but it picked right back up," she told CBC Daybreak South host Chris Walker. 

"We're in a pandemic. It's not supposed to be business as usual."

Couture expressed concerns that both Kelowna as a whole and downtown specifically seem to be marketing themselves toward visitors, including shutting Bernard Avenue to vehicle traffic, increasing the number of pedestrians.

But Interior Health's Dr. Silvina Mema said it isn't likely people are spreading or catching the disease simply walking around the city or visiting restaurants while following distancing rules.

"That's not what's driving theses clusters," she said. "It's mainly the indoor gatherings, particularly if there is alcohol involved."

Mema said when her team followed up with the people who have tested positive for COVID-19, they found most of them had attended private parties where they were with large groups of people from outside their bubble over an extended period of time.

She also pointed out that most people who tested positive were in their 20s and 30s, rather than spread out across a greater age range.

"If downtown or restaurants were the drivers of these [cases] — which they're not — we would be seeing cases across the board," she said.

Kelowna's mayor, Colin Basran, has said the city is encouraging tourists to follow best practices for physical distancing and hygiene, rather than trying to prevent people from visiting at all.

Likewise, Mark Burley of the Downtown Kelowna Association said his organization has no control over whether people visit downtown — but they can take steps to promote safe behaviour.

Even the decision to close Bernard Ave., he said, was based on giving people more space to walk at a physical distance.

"We've provided the atmosphere and the room for people to establish their physical distancing, all of our businesses have great protocols in place for sanitation," he said. "Downtown Kelowna's an extremely safe place to go. As to whether tourists or people from out of town come downtown, we can't control that. It is a free society."

Still, Couture said she remains worried by some of the behaviour she's seeing, including people getting together and dancing in groups or playing sports without sanitizer in sight.

"This festival vibe, I find very contrary to what responsible action should look like," she said.

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