New Brunswick

Campbellton's cluster of COVID-19 cases forces legislature to adjourn

The New Brunswick legislature has adjourned again because of a new outbreak of COVID-19 cases, just two days after reconvening with physical distancing precautions in place.

MLAs are expected to return on June 9

Premier Blaine Higgs said the adjournment was a precaution to allow MLAs from Zone 5 to find out if they've come into contact with the respiratory illness. (CBC)

The New Brunswick legislature has adjourned again because of a new outbreak of COVID-19 cases, just two days after reconvening with physical distancing precautions in place.

All MLAs from all four parties agreed Thursday morning to the abrupt decision to adjourn until June 9 to ensure they themselves don't contribute to the spread of the coronavirus.

The move was in response to a cluster of cases in Zone 5, the Campbellton area. As of Wednesday afternoon, there were three active cases there, the only cases in the province.

Two Liberal MLAs from the region announced Wednesday they were returning to their ridings. On Thursday morning, Speaker Daniel Guitard, whose riding includes part of Zone 5, was also absent.

Premier Blaine Higgs said the adjournment was a precaution to allow MLAs to find out if they've been infected.

"We all live in different portions of the province, we all go back to our ridings after any session, so we could become one of those that could be spreading if we had the disease," Higgs said.

MLAs look into testing as 'extra precaution' 

The adjournment "gives us that gestation period to figure that out and be tested. … We're asking a lot of people to ... practise the direction of Public Health, and we can be no exception to that."

The two Liberal MLAs, Guy Arseneault from Campbellton-Restigouche and Gilles LePage from Restigouche West, said in a statement Wednesday they were not showing any symptoms and did not believe they'd been in direct contact with the new cases.

Liberal MLA Guy Arseneault hasn't shown any symptoms of the virus but said he would consider getting tested as an extra precaution. (Ed Hunter/CBC)

But they said they would not remain in Fredericton and would also look into getting tested as an "extra precaution."

The legislature reconvened Tuesday for its first regular sitting day since a rushed budget vote and adjournment on March 13, in the early days of the pandemic.

Gilles LePage from Restigouche West, also hasn't shown any symptoms of COVID-19 and does not believe he has come into contact with the virus. (Jennifer Sweet/CBC)

MLAs applauded Tuesday when Guitard said it was the first legislature in Canada to resume its business with all members present.

Extra precautions were in place. Only 28 of 47 MLAs were sitting on the floor of the chamber, and their desks were spread further apart than normal. The other 19 members took part in proceedings from the upstairs public gallery overlooking the chamber.

Legislature like 'a petri dish'

Progressive Conservative government house leader Glen Savoie said all MLAs were hoping "that the worst doesn't happen and that we can contain the spread of this virus." 

People's Alliance leader Kris Austin compared the legislature to a petri dish that could allow the virus to spread across the province via the elected members.

But Savoie later told reporters the main reason for the adjournment was to follow the same precautions as everyone else, and to allow the government to devote its full attention to the Campbellton outbreak.

He also said there was a question of fairness: the PCs have a minority government and having the Liberals down three MLAs would put them at a disadvantage during any votes.

Green leader David Coon supported the adjournment and noted that Public Health officials had warned that new cases were likely.

Speaker Daniel Guitard, whose riding includes part of Zone 5, was absent from the legislature on Thursday. (Jacob Barker/CBC)

"This is not unexpected in some ways," he said. "We knew there would be this kind of back and forth with the virus, with cases popping up in regions."

But he said the new disruption to the legislature's work shows that other ways of sitting need to be looked at, such as the House of Commons' hybrid approach of remote, online proceedings with some MPs attending in person some of the time. 

 "We need the means to keep working," Coon said. "Technology today allows us to do that."

Savoie told reporters that "we do see that as feasible but it will take some time." He said MLAs could meet digitally now but the legislature still needs to find a way make that accessible to the public in both English and French, a constitutional requirement.

He said it's "a very personal choice" whether all MLAs should be tested after being in the chamber with Arseneault and LePage, but said all members should monitor themselves for symptoms. 

About the Author

Jacques Poitras

Provincial Affairs reporter

Jacques Poitras has been CBC's provincial affairs reporter in New Brunswick since 2000. Raised in Moncton, he also produces the CBC political podcast Spin Reduxit.

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