Edmonton

Sylvan Lake asks province for help with COVID-19 crowd control, urges rule-breakers to stay away

After throngs of people flocked to the shores of Sylvan Lake on Saturday, town officials are asking the province for “clear direction” on crowd control and encouraging beachgoers who may have mingled too closely to get tested for COVID-19. 

'Controlling social behaviour is tremendously difficult' says town CAO

Pictures from Sylvan Lake show the beached crowded with people on Saturday, sparking some COVID-19 concerns and an online uproar. (Supplied by Greg Dickson)

After throngs of people flocked to the shores of Sylvan Lake on Saturday, town officials are asking the province for "clear direction" on crowd control and encouraging beachgoers who may have mingled too closely to get tested for COVID-19. 

The beachfront town west of Red Deer was packed over the weekend. Photographs of the lakefront showed hundreds of visitors gathered on the sand, with many seemingly breaking physical-distancing rules.

The crowds triggered an outcry on social media and prompted a stern warning from not only town officials but Premier Jason Kenney.

The waterfront was "near or even at capacity," town officials said in a statement Monday. People who are unwilling to adhere to physical distancing regulations "must reconsider" their plans to visit the central Alberta community, town officials said. 

Enforcement alone is not the solution.- Wally Ferris, Sylvan Lake CAO

"Controlling social behaviour is tremendously difficult; we neither have the jurisdiction, nor the resources, to manage and enforce behaviour," Wally Ferris, the town's chief administrative officer said in the statement.

"Only the RCMP and Alberta Health has the authority to enforce how visitors comply with physical-distancing rules, but we want to be clear: from what we observed on the weekend — the sheer number of people, enforcement alone is not the solution."

Crowds on the waterfront are commonplace. The beachfront town is home to 15,000 permanent residents, but hundreds of thousands of visitors flock to the area every summer, drawn to the area's small, family-friendly white sand beach. 

With so many Albertans vacationing close to home this summer, larger crowds at destinations like Sylvan Lake are "bound to happen," the town said.

The town said it has contacted  Alberta government officials for advice on how to handle the situation. In the meantime, visitors who feel they may have been exposed to the virus, are encouraged to get tested. 

"The Town of Sylvan Lake has reached out to the province to provide a clear direction for destinations and communities like Sylvan Lake, and to work together identify potential solutions to allow continued enjoyment of the lake, and to allow our local waterfront businesses to continue to operate." 

During a news conference Monday, Kenney said Albertans need to remain vigilant with COVID-19 restrictions or risk a dangerous increase in cases.

Kenney said he's seen worrying crowds at Alberta parks and beaches, including Sylvan Lake. 

"We saw large crowds gathering this week at Sylvan Lake and understandably with the nice weather but people very close together," Kenney said.

"I've seen that myself in parks and I've seen people in crowded areas including grocery stores not wearing masks and that kind of conduct, unfortunately, could jeopardize the progress that we have made. 

Phase 3 depends on how Albertans' behave

Kenney said there was no target date of Stage 3 relaunch adding that the most recent data on the number of new cases was "concerning."

"I would love to get to Phase 3 as quickly as possible but that will be up to how Albertans conduct themselves in the days and weeks to come," Kenney said. 

During the Monday news conference, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta's chief medical officer of health, said provincial officials are aware of several communities, including Sylvan Lake, that have been struggling with an influx of summer visitors.

She said government officials will be meeting with town officials this week to ensure they have the enforcement support they need. 

In the meantime, Hinshaw reiterated the importance of wearing masks in crowded public places.

"Wearing a mask is a common sense precaution that should be part of everyone's new normal," Hinshaw said. 

"Masks are part of our personal responsibility to manage the risk for ourselves and for others. 

"Of course, masks are only one part of the public health approach. There is no single way to protect ourselves from COVID-19. No one measure alone will eliminate all risks from exposure."

While the town said on Monday while it was disappointed to see some people break the rules, many others were enjoying the waterfront responsibly.

The town said it understands the urge to travel.

"We recognize all Albertans are attempting to do their best to balance responsible social-distancing action with their journey to find a sense of normal in today's world; they are searching for an opportunity to be well and connect with loved ones." 

'Busting at the seams'

Other lakefront community mayors are requesting provincial support after watching their local beaches flood with visitors over the weekend. 

Mayor Jim Benedict says Alberta Beach, a village about a 75 kilometres west of Edmonton, was overrun with thousands of people on Saturday, in crowds unlike anything he's seen in 30 years. 

"We were busting at the seams," he said. "We're not getting any support from the province." 

The lone bylaw officer no longer has the power to enforce health orders after the state of public health emergency lapsed, Benedict says, and the village doesn't have the resources to handle crowd control. 

Portable toilets had to be stationed around the beach when staff could no longer keep up with the demand for public washrooms, compounded by COVID-19 sanitization requirements. Benedict says garbage trucks, which usually pick up about a dozen bags along the lakeside, were brimming on Sunday morning. 

But the mayor's primary concern remains the risk of a COVID-19 outbreak, noting beachgoers showed little consideration for physical distancing orders. 

"I understand people are tired of being locked up and want to get out, but the common sense — the fear of the virus is gone," he said. 

The mayor wants the province to assign patrols or impose a capacity limit at the beach. Otherwise, he said, "maybe we have to go back to a lock down." 

"We're not getting any support from the province." - Jim Benedict, mayor of Alberta Beach

The weekend crowds were also unusually large in Ma-Me-O Beach, a summer village fronting Pigeon Lake, says mayor Don Fleming. Visitors vied for spots on the narrow stretch of sand, made even thinner by high water levels brought on by weeks of consistent rain. 

Fleming says the town is "powerless" when it comes to enforcing public health orders.

"There's really nothing we can do about it. I mean, it's a public beach and people are free to come and go. But I think there's valid concerns about people taking this virus quite lightly presuming that it's really no big deal when, in fact, it is a big deal," he said. 

A local outbreak is of particular concern in the summer village, where the majority of the roughly 100 residents are over 65 years old. 

"It's really incumbent upon every person who comes and uses a public space such as this to think of others. And if you're wearing a mask, that you're not just wearing it for yourself, but you're wearing it for others in the event that you're an unwitting carrier," Fleming said.  

About the Author

Wallis Snowdon

Journalist

Wallis Snowdon is a digital journalist with CBC Edmonton. She has nearly a decade of experience reporting behind her. Originally from New Brunswick, her journalism career has taken her from Nova Scotia to Fort McMurray. Share your stories with Wallis at wallis.snowdon@cbc.ca

With files from Jordan Omstead

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