Crowded Alberta beach sparks COVID-19 concern, online outcry

A packed weekend gathering of people at an Alberta beach has sparked COVID-19 concerns from residents and politicians, as pictures of the scene generating critical comments on social media.

Photos appear to show people violating physical distancing orders

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

A packed weekend gathering at an Alberta beach has sparked COVID-19 concerns from residents and politicians, as pictures of the scene generated critical comments on social media.

Pictures began to pop up on Twitter of crowds in Sylvan Lake on Saturday, a beachfront town west of Red Deer. 

The posts appear to show groups of people closer than the required two-metre separation on a thin stretch of sand fronting the lake, with spillover crowds in the grassy park enclosing the beach. 

"COVID-19 is still here and we must do our part in limiting the spread," said Alberta Health spokesperson Tom McMillan in a statement to CBC News on Sunday. "We continue to recommend that all Albertans physically distance whenever possible, including when at the beach." 

Public health orders require people to maintain a minimum two-metre separation at any indoor or outdoor gathering, with certain exceptions. Provincial guidelines offers flexibility for cohort groups, for example, with households permitted to have close interactions with up to 15 people. 

Sylvan Lake was trending on Twitter Sunday afternoon with certain pictures shared hundreds of times. 

NDP MLA Janis Irwin commented on a post, saying it was reminiscent of crowded U.S. beaches during recent long weekends. 

Sylvan Lake, home to about 15,000 residents, swells with thousands of visitors in the summer months as it hosts one of the most accessible beaches for people living in Red Deer, Calgary and Edmonton. Last week, the town announced it had deactivated its Emergency Coordination Centre, with decisions related to COVID-19 returned to regular administrative operations.

At the outset of the pandemic, local officials asked people with summer homes to stay put wherever they spent the winter, noting a local COVID-19 outbreak could overwhelm the healthcare system. Barriers were placed at the entrance of public parking lots around the lake to dissuade would-be beachgoers. 

'We're all still vulnerable' 

Local resident Greg Dickson says he felt safe in the community throughout the spring. But as the beach regains its status as a popular weekend getaway under relaxed public health restrictions, Dickson says he worries about an outbreak. 

"I'm shocked, frankly," he said. "It's like we've forgotten that we're all still vulnerable." 

Dickson says he arrived at the beach on Saturday to meet family members and seek out a possible memorial bench to honour a loved one who had recently died, unrelated to COVID-19. He briefly considered whether to brave the crowd with a mask on, but the 65-year-old and his wife, who has asthma, figured the risk was too apparent. 

The visit to the park left Dickson feeling disillusioned. He took pride in the province's response to the COVID-19 at the beginning of the pandemic, he says, but is increasingly distressed by what he sees as a collective disregard for physical distancing guidelines. 

"We need each other," he said. "My well-being and health is dependent on my neighbours and that was once comforting, now it's disturbing.

Being outside is not a level of protection unto itself.- Craig Jenne, infectious disease expert at the University of Calgary

Craig Jenne, an infectious disease expert at the University of Calgary, says the pictures are worrisome and indicative of what he called "COVID fatigue". People appear to be losing track of the public health guidelines that exist as a condition of the province's relaunch plan, he says.

"If we ignore these, we are going to have problems, we are going to have increased infections. Unfortunately, we may have to go back and close some things, whether it be beaches or even stores and restaurants if we're unable to keep numbers low," said Jenne, an associate professor in the department of microbiology, immunology and infectious diseases. 

While early studies suggest the risk of COVID-19 transmission is markedly lower outside, compared to indoors, Jenne says the risk is still "quite high" in a large gathering such as the one documented at Sylvan Lake on Saturday.

"In crowding like that, if one person was infected, we can absolutely expect a cluster to develop, so we have to be careful" he said. 

A small amount of wind can begin to disperse the thousands of respiratory droplets we produce when speaking, coughing and sneezing — the same droplets that commonly spread the virus. Even so, the transmission risk still exists, prompting public health experts to issue physical distancing and masks guidelines for outdoor settings. 

A study of 318 outbreaks in China found one was connected to outdoor transmission resulting in two COVID-19 cases. Another study of Japanese cases found the risk of transmission was around 18 times higher in a closed environment compared to open air. Both studies are in the pre-print phase, meaning they have not yet been subject to the rigorous oversight of academic peer-review. 

"Being outside is not a level of protection unto itself," Jenne said. "If we start packing venues with people, the fact that it's outside is going to offer little protection." 

With files from Mirna Djukic


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