Kitchener-Waterloo

'Planning has not relaxed at all' for potential St. Patrick's Day party in Waterloo, mayor says

City officials and police say the likelihood of students gathering on Ezra Avenue for St. Patrick's Day seems minimal this year given the pandemic and the risk of big fines if people gather. Still, they say they're continuing to watch and plan just in case there is a party.

City officials and police say it looks unlikely a party will happen this year

In the past, thousands of young people have taken to Ezra Avenue in Waterloo to celebrate St. Patrick's Day. This year, officials believe the pandemic and the risk of hefty fines will keep students from gathering. (Kate Bueckert/CBC)

Fewer students on the two university campuses in Waterloo this semester, public health messaging about the COVID-19 pandemic and the risk of hefty fines are all reasons St. Patrick's Day revellers may reconsider taking to Ezra Avenue next month, the mayor says.

For the past decade, thousands of people wearing green have taken to the small street adjacent to the Wilfrid Laurier campus to mark March 17. The gathering is no longer a planned event — people just know that it will happen that day in that location. In 2019, police said it was the largest party they'd seen with more than 33,000 people showing up.

Last year, no one showed up to the unsanctioned gathering after public health, university and city officials urged people to stay away and a state of emergency was declared.

This year, Waterloo Mayor Dave Jaworsky said, "things are looking promising but we never take our foot off the gas pedal at this time."

"Planning has not relaxed at all," he said of the city, university, emergency services officials and community members who meet to discuss the event year-round.

Jaworsky said he's concerned by reports of students partying in other schools — including at the University of Guelph where an outbreak was declared after parties were held in the townhouse residences — but he said bylaw officers are out in the city and fines of up to $10,000 for planning an event can be a good deterrent.

He noted some of the people who attend the gathering on Ezra Avenue are also upper-year high school students who go during their March Break.

"With [March Break] being moved to April, they'll be in school that day. It's a Wednesday. Wednesday works in our favour, too," Jaworsky said.

In 2020, only police officers walked along Ezra Avenue on March 17 because students heeded messaging from city and public health officials not to attend the unsanctioned gathering just as the COVID-19 pandemic was taking hold in Waterloo region. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC)

Large gatherings not permitted

Public health is working with community partners to ensure consistency in messaging about the unsanctioned gatherings, Dr. Hsiu-Li Wang, the region's medical officer of health, said in a statement emailed to CBC Kitchener-Waterloo.

"With COVID-19, large gatherings are not permitted under current provincial regulations. Any large gatherings above what is permitted under the provincial framework would become an enforcement concern and would be addressed by our local enforcement partners," Wang said.

"In general, we continue to recommend that people stay home as much as possible, only leaving for essential reasons, and avoiding close contact with anyone who is not from their household."

Pandemic status next month unclear

Waterloo Regional Police Services Chief Bryan Larkin said police are keeping an eye on the situation.

He said there's still an operational plan in place, but that they anticipate the situation will be different this year.

"We recognize that we're not sure, actually, where we'll be in the current pandemic status. We're not sure if we'll still be in the red zone, if we'll transition out of that," he said, noting it's unclear if bars will be allowed to open and what rules will govern them by this time next month. "Who's to say our province won't be in another lockdown."

Larkin said officers have not been called to deal with many student parties this year and that's a good sign of what could happen going forward.

"I've been super impressed with our student population. We've not seen some of the challenges other communities have seen. They've been extremely respectful and extremely good citizens," he said. "We anticipate that to carry through the month of March."

'It definitely is not OK to party'

Jaworsky said plans for how to handle the event aren't generally finalized until the days before March 17, so there is room to pivot if it's needed.

He also said people in the community can play a role in helping stop any gatherings. He said in past years, he's walked through the neighbourhood or on campus and spotted a post for one party. He snapped a photo and sent it along to police. Others could do the same.

He said he's proud students didn't show up in 2020 and that there wasn't a super spreader event.

"The students came through, they listened," he said.

As for anyone who is considering getting together with friends this year, his message is simply: Don't

"It definitely is not OK to party in this part in 2021," he said.

With files from Paula Duhatschek

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