New Brunswick

Theatre owner says he doesn't know the source of Saint John 'superspreader' event

The owner of the Water Street Dinner Theatre in Saint John says he gave Public Health the names and numbers of the 120 guests and staff who were present for a Nov. 13 show, but he can't say whether that was a superspreader event.

Roy Billingsley says 120 people attended a show last month, including a dozen workers who all tested negative

Water Street Dinner Theatre owner Roy Billingsley said he's aware of speculation that his venue was one of two superspreader events in Saint John, but has received 'no confirmation of that' from Public Health. (Roger Cosman)

The owner of the Water Street Dinner Theatre in Saint John says he gave Public Health the names and numbers of the 120 guests and staff who were present for a Nov. 13 show, but he can't say whether that was a superspreader event.

Roy Billingsley says he's aware that people are speculating that his was one of " two venues" that the chief medical officer of health has described as being the source of 80 per cent of the current active cases in the Saint John zone.

"The timeline might suggest that we were involved," said Billingsley. "But I've received no confirmation of that."

Billingsley said Public Health notified him on Nov. 18 about a potential public exposure at the theatre on the previous Friday evening.

"I was told that myself and my staff had to isolate for 14 days," said Billingsley, who has since decided to close the venue indefinitely.

He said about a dozen employees were working that night, and all were tested for the coronavirus but none tested positive.

A cancelled cruise ship season prompted Roy Billingsley to close Steamers Restaurant early, and he doesn't know when he'll be able to safely reopen the Water Street Dinner Theatre. (Roger Cosman)

Billingsley said the business was complying with the strict protocols that were in place at the time and masks were mandatory except when customers were seated at their tables.

The venue can accommodate 14 tables of 10 people each, with two metres of distance between the tables.

As another precaution, customers were able to place their food orders online in advance of the show, he said.
I do take some comfort in knowing that we were following guidelines. We were playing by the rules.- Roy Billingsley, Water Street Dinner Theatre owner



There was an option to order drinks by texting the bartender, and diners could also order beverages in advance of the event.

Those who decided to line up for drinks had to maintain the appropriate distance.

"I guess I do take some comfort in knowing that we were following guidelines," Billingsley said. "We were playing by the rules.

"It's unfortunate that somebody was identified as attending one of our productions having COVID-19. However, I think as long as business owners abide by the rules, anybody who lays blame is kind of foolish for doing so. We're all working within the guidelines, and I think people really need to be kind at this time."

Owner not sure when dinner theatre will reopen 

CBC News asked Billingsley how his business has been faring since the start of the pandemic.

He operates both the dinner theatre and a restaurant in the same building across from the cruise ship terminal

He said the restaurant, Steamers, is a seasonal business that normally closes in November.

This year he decided to close it in September.

In March, Ottawa announced a ban on cruise ships in Canadian waters and later cancelled the season entirely. 

Billingsley said he doesn't know when he'll be able to safely open the theatre, especially since singing is part of the show.

"It's been a bit of a roller-coaster," he said.

"We've been very fortunate in our region that we haven't had to deal with the effects of COVID for very long … but it certainly takes a toll on you, financially and psychologically."

On Nov. 20, when Dr. Jennifer Russell first mentioned the superspreader event in response to a question from CBC News, she said it involved "many" health-care workers.

Billingsley said he didn't know about health-care workers attending the show but said many of the customers that night would have known each other.

Dr. Jennifer Russell said Tuesday that a superspreader event occurred at two venues over the course of one evening in Saint John and was directly responsible for 60 confirmed cases in Zone 2. (Government of New Brunswick)

Russell brought up the subject again on Tuesday, without naming dates, times or locations of what she called the superspreader event.

She said it occurred at two venues over the course of one evening in Saint John and was directly responsible for 60 confirmed cases in Zone 2.

"Sixty people have contracted the respiratory disease from the event — 34 who attended and 26 others who were infected when they came into contact with attendees," said Russell.

"This isn't about casting blame, it's really about a teaching moment."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Rachel Cave is a CBC reporter based in Saint John, New Brunswick.

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