Nfld. & Labrador

Confusion swirls over drive-thru vote option for hundreds of people self-isolating

Elections NL said voters in isolation in compliance with COVID-19 rules will be allowed to cast their ballots in Saturday's provincial election using a drive-thru voting site. But just hours later, Dr. Janice Fitzgerald reiterated that those self-isolating aren't allowed to leave their property.

Community spread has placed at least 1,500 people in isolation just days ahead of the N.L. election

The parking lot of Confederation Building's West Block will be turned into a drive-thru polling station on Saturday, for voters in the St. John's area currently isolating due to COVID-19. (CBC)

Voters who are isolating in the St. John's area due to the COVID-19 outbreak will be allowed to cast a ballot in Saturday's Newfoundland and Labrador election using a drive-thru voting site, Elections NL said Wednesday. 

However, the stability of the plan seemed to be cast into doubt later Wednesday when Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Janice Fitzgerald said people who are self-isolating cannot leave their homes and added that she had not seen the plan before Elections NL released it. 

"People who are in isolation are allowed to be on their own property, but other than that are not permitted to leave their home," she said. 

Fitzgerald, who announced a one-day record of 53 new cases and 32 presumptive positive cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday, said her office had been in discussions with Elections NL.

Asked if the Feb. 13 election can still proceed safely, she said, "We'll have to find a way. So, yes." 

Elections NL said it will put a drive-thru polling station in a large parking lot near West Block of the Confederation Building in St. John's, the agency said in a news release.  

Only voters in isolation will be able to use the site, it said.

Even before Wednesday's announcement, the outbreak has placed at least 1,500 people in isolation just days ahead of the election.

But chief electoral officer Bruce Chaulk said there may not be as many voters affected as those numbers first suggest.

"My understanding with the Department of Health is that a significant number of the people that are in isolation are actually not of voting age," Chaulk told CBC News Wednesday. "They're actually below voting age, so they're not impacted by it, but it could be their families or close contacts."

People looking to cast a ballot will be required to show proper proof of identification. They will also be required to swear an oath and have their contact information recorded in case there is a future need for contact tracing.

Bruce Chaulk, the chief electoral officer, says Elections NL staff have been in constant communication with public health about election matters. (Mike Simms/CBC)

The drive-thru will operate from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. NT Saturday.

The option will likely be welcome news for voters like Gary Dawson, who learned this week a case of COVID-19 had been connected to his kids' after-school program, and he would have to isolate at home for 14 days — meaning he wouldn't be free to roam until a week after election day.

"I've been voting ever since I had the ability to vote," Dawson said. "I think it's something everybody should take seriously. So not being able to vote, I take very seriously."

Dawson said he normally tries to cast his ballot in advance polls, but this year — given all three major parties waited until over halfway through the campaign to release their platforms — he hadn't yet made his decision.

Advance poll voting happened on Saturday, while the deadline for mail-in ballots passed on Feb. 2. The option to apply for a special ballot that could be dropped off at an Elections NL site ended on Jan. 23.

Postpone election day: Crosbie 

PC Leader Ches Crosbie maintains that Liberal Leader Andrew Furey "gambled on the election call and COVID-19 called his bluff."

Crosbie told reporters on Wednesday compassion and empathy is required for all involved in the latest spike in cases, but also for Fitzgerald, election staff and every candidate trying to navigate their own campaign under the rapidly evolving situation.

As a plan came together for a drive-thru site, Crosbie said Fitzgerald is going to need time to review the idea to make sure it's the safest possible plan. But, he said, there should still be a Plan B in place — now that there is evidence of community spread of COVID-19.

"It looks to me [that] new consideration must be given to postponing voting day from Saturday," he said. "Not for a long time, but for long enough to make sure that safe procedures are in place. This should not be done in a rush. Safety and a right to vote should be paramount." 

PC Leader Ches Crosbie is calling for the election to be postponed from Saturday while a safe voting plan goes through public health. (Katie Breen/CBC)

In-person voting safe, says Chaulk

Meanwhile, Chaulk said the drive-thru will not be extended to seniors or other people with concerns about their health.

Fitzgerald has signed off on all procedures in other polling stations, said Chaulk, and all steps have been taken to make casting a ballot as safe as possible.

"It is a very short process, and if you're on the list, then you should only be in there for a few minutes and there should be no prolonged exposure to anybody in a voting station," he said. 

"We are very confident in our voting process at the polls."

New Brunswick, British Columbia and Saskatchewan have all held general elections amid the pandemic, and "with a lot more community spread than we currently have," said Chaulk

Some staff have backed out of working the election, but Chaulk said that is a normal occurrence and some staff may be moved between districts if needed.

The Mount Pearl-Southlands returning office just outside St. John's shut down Wednesday after someone connected to the office tested positive for COVID-19. It's unclear what disruption that could cause on Saturday, if any.

"We're still evaluating that particular impact. The returning officer himself can pretty much work from home and finish off the process of getting people ready for the election on Saturday," said Chaulk.

"We may have to replace a few additional workers. It depends on when the testing comes back on some of those people."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from Peter Cowan

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