As of now, election still a go, says N.L.'s chief electoral officer
'A lot of this will depend on what happens over the next few days,' says Bruce Chaulk
With community spread of COVID-19 now identified in the metro St. John's region, as well as the introduction of special orders to curb group activities, a sharper eye has turned to the Feb. 13 general election.
Bruce Chaulk, chief electoral officer of Newfoundland and Labrador, said Monday afternoon the vote is still set for Saturday, with special measures in place to ensure people can vote safely.
"We're following all of the orders of Dr. [Janice] Fitzgerald and her staff have provided to us on how to safely conduct a vote, so we're pretty confident on that part," said Chaulk, speaking with CBC after a briefing by the chief medical officer of health, as well as Premier Andrew Furey and Health Minister John Haggie.
During the briefing, Furey said any authority to postpone the election would fall to Chaulk.
If they're in isolation, they can't come out. At this point I don't have an option for them.- Bruce Chaulk
And while that's true, Chaulk said as of now, the election is still going to happen on Feb. 13.
"There's a section in the Elections Act that allows the chief electoral officer to make changes based on unforeseen circumstances, but it doesn't mean that I would cancel or postpone … all of the areas if it's just spread in a localized area," he said.
"A lot of this will depend on what happens over the next few days as to what we do."
If Fitzgerald changes the COVID-19 alert level, for instance, then that could change decision-making about the election, Chaulk said.
Fitzgerald announced 11 new cases Monday, five of them students at Mount Pearl Senior High.
There are hundreds of people currently in isolation of quarantine. Hours have been extended at two St. John's testing sites, with a third opened up on Mundy Pond Road in St. John's to accommodate testing.
For those in isolation who have not already voted, Chaulk said there are not really any voting options left.
"If they're in isolation, they can't come out. At this point I don't have an option for them in the legislation," said Chaulk.
He added that 65,000 people have already voted through special ballot by mail or advance polls.
"I would like to be able to say that I can do something for them, but with the way the legislation is, it doesn't provide me any option to be able to. If they're in isolation I can't very well go and help them vote in person — that would put my staff at risk."
'This is somewhat anticipated'
Meanwhile, if things stay the same for the rest of the week, Mount Pearl Senior High will still be a polling station come election day.
"Dr. Fitzgerald specifically mentioned today the buildings are not the issue, and because the building is not the issue that wouldn't prevent us from using that particular building," Chaulk said.
Chaulk added that there are more buildings and facilities being used this general election than ever before, which will allow fewer people in each facility, and more physical distancing.
If everyone follows public health guidelines, Chaulk said, he is confident that a safe election can still happen this weekend.
"We talked about hand sanitization, one-use pencils … and the sanitization of the area throughout the day. When a person goes in and votes, then as soon as they're finished someone goes in and sprays down the area behind them and then allows the next person to come in and vote," Chaulk said.
Those measures were already successfully tested in the Humber-Gros Morne byelection, Chaulk added.
"There was always the possibility that there would be community spread throughout an election, and there has been three general elections held in the country so far this year in which there were instances of community spread occurring while those elections were ongoing," Chaulk said.
"So this is somewhat anticipated, but what we do is we follow the orders of Dr. Fitzgerald as to what we needed to do in order to ensure the vote could be conducted safely, and that's what we're still following."