Nfld. & Labrador

Who wants to kiss a fish during COVID-19? Screech master faces a slow summer

"Master screecher" Keith Vokey usually spends his summers entertaining tourists, but it's a blank slate for 2020.

Keith Vokey has had no calls to perform the ceremony for summer 2020

Master screecher Keith Vokey conducts a screech-in at Christian's Pub, in the pre-pandemic times. (Levi Garber/CBC)

Newfoundland and Labrador's silliest tourism tradition has come to a complete standstill this summer, as the province's self-proclaimed "master screecher" says COVID-19 concerns have completely dried up demand for screech-ins.

From the end of May through to the end of September, Keith Vokey says, he usually performs upwards of three screech-in ceremonies a day in St. John's, regaling tourists with local lore and song, a bit of bologna, a shot of rum and, of course, kissing the cod.

This year, he's gotten two calls for bookings — both for 2021.

"I'm already halfway through my season and losing money by the day," said Vokey. "I've kind of given up the ghost on this summer."

Vokey speculated it would be a lean season when the pandemic first hit Newfoundland and Labrador at the end of March, but has been able to avail of CERB to carry him through, as well has his wife's full-time job.

"My bread and butter is the screeching-ins," he said.

"Until I hear otherwise from the government, I'm assuming there's not going to be much there for me."

Come From Away actor Kendra Kassebaum kisses a cod in 2016, which few people seem to have an appetite for in 2020. (Chris Ensing/CBC)

Sanitize the scales?

While the province is set to loosen public health restrictions with its move to Alert Level 2 on Thursday, saliva-swapping via fish scales has probably never seemed less appealing than now, and Vokey admits it would be hard to alter a screech-in to make it fit in a COVID-19 world.

He could silence his singing, but when it comes to the cod, spraying it with sanitizer between kisses probably won't work.

"I don't think the fish would last very long that way," he told CBC Radio's St. John's Morning Show.

Vokey is a second-generation screech master — perhaps the only one in the province, as his father Merle Vokey is largely credited with popularizing the well-marketed "tradition" that involves a Newfoundland and Labrador Liquor Corp. branded product.

Keith Vokey caught the ceremony bug when enlisted to carry his dad's screech-in gear to initiate Rush while they were in town for a gig.

"They were so wonderful. In fact, I walked out of that going, like, 'Wow, if my dad can meet Rush, who am I going to meet going into this?'" he said.

With the Tragically Hip, Barenaked Ladies, and the Arkells among his CanCon celebrity screech-ins, "it's been a wonderful ride," Vokey said.

It's a ride he hopes isn't over yet. He misses his work dearly, and said if he gets a call, he'll figure out a way to do it hygienically.

"I'm very lucky to be doing what I'm doing, and I see this as a bump in the road," he said.

From the archives

Screech-ins have drawn crowds, and fire, for decades. Here is a report by the CBC's Brian Dubrueil from 1990: 

From 1990, Brian Dubreuil reports on how how the popular ceremony that turns tourists into 'honorary Newfoundlanders' was coming under criticism 2:46

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from The St. John's Morning Show

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