Saskatoon

RCMP group photo raises questions amid COVID-19 outbreak in Yorkton, Sask.

Concerns are being raised about a photo posted by RCMP in Yorkton, Sask., as the city struggles to contain a COVID-19 outbreak.

A Yorkton RCMP member has since tested positive for COVID-19, more than a dozen have been ordered to isolate

The lack of masks or physical distancing by Yorkton, Sask., RCMP in this photo posted to their social media page earlier this month has raised concerns. An RCMP member has since tested positive for COVID-19, and more than a dozen have been ordered to isolate, (Yorkton RCMP/Facebook)

A photo posted by RCMP in Yorkton, Sask., showing a group of officers standing close together and unmasked at a city event, is raising concerns as the city struggles to contain a COVID-19 outbreak.

"It does not convey the right health message to the public. It's quite concerning," said Dr. Anne Huang, a former Saskatchewan deputy medical health officer.

RCMP were recently given a community service award at a City of Yorkton indoor event. In a photo posted to the detachment's Facebook page on Sept. 16, eight people — six in full uniform — are posing together. None are masked or standing two metres apart.

A Yorkton RCMP member has since tested positive for COVID-19 and more than a dozen have been ordered to isolate, causing a reduction in police services.

The Yorkton area currently has one of the highest number of COVID-19 cases per capita in the province. Aside from the RCMP case, outbreaks have been declared at a high school, a health centre and a fitness club in the city.

The concerns about the RCMP photo come after a controversial blog post this week, in which the president of Yorkton's Chamber of Commerce said he would not support businesses with mandatory mask policies.

Dr. Anne Huang, a former Saskatchewan deputy medical health officer, said the cases discovered so far in Yorkton are the 'tip of the iceberg,' and urged community leaders to do more. (Don Somers/CBC)

Huang said it was careless for RCMP to pose for such a photo and then post it publicly. She said Premier Scott Moe was rightly criticized for posing close to others unmasked in an ice cream shop back in August, and that should have served as a warning.

Huang is concerned about more than the image and public messaging.

"Given the timeline of when this event occurred — about two weeks ago — matching the timelines of incubation periods, I'm worried that there's already transmission that's occurred through that community event the RCMP officers attended," Huang said.

No one from the RCMP was available for an interview Tuesday. In an email from the provincial head office in Regina, the RCMP thanked CBC for bringing the photo to their attention.

"As police officers we understand that we are responsible for ensuring our actions do not put others at risk and we remain committed to doing our part to slow the spread of the virus," stated the email.

According to the email, the Yorkton officers stood together only for a few seconds. At all other times, physical distancing rules were followed.

Yorkton at a critical stage: mayor

In an interview, Yorkton Mayor Bob Maloney said the community service awards were broken up into several events to keep numbers low. Maloney said he wasn't at the one with the RCMP officers, but was certain no group photos were taken at the one he attended.

Huang said Yorkton is at a critical stage, where everyone needs to work together. If not, the coronavirus could spread rapidly in the city, and elsewhere.

"The cases we've seen may just be the tip of the iceberg," she said.

"I think it takes leadership. We need to see them step up if we hope to avoid what's happening in Ontario and Quebec."

Maloney said he'd like to see the provincial government make masks mandatory in indoor public spaces. The Yorkton mayor doesn't favour a city bylaw, saying it would be difficult to enforce.

He also said he will work hard to educate Yorkton residents and model proper behaviour.

"I think the responsibility for the elected and public leaders is to be cautious, to urge people to do the right thing."

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