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Federal vote can be safe despite COVID-19 but parties must avoid 'nightmare scenario,' experts say

With Canadians expected to go to the polls in September, experts say it's important for Elections Canada to have enough time to prepare safe polling stations that follow local health guidelines and protocols to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Elections Canada consulting with public health units across country

Voting in the federal election expected for next month will follow COVID-19 health and safety rules including masking, open doors and windows, and physical distancing, Elections Canada says. (Michelle-Andrea Girouard/CBC)

Canadians are expected to head to the polls on Sept. 20 in a federal vote that could be overshadowed by a fourth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Experts say it's possible to conduct a federal election safely across the country, provided Elections Canada has enough time to develop health and safety rules for polling stations and pays attention to public health restrictions.

Fahad Razak, an internal medicine physician at St. Michael's Hospital, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto and a member of Ontario's COVID-19 science advisory table, says it will involve case-by-case decisions that depend on location, riding, and public health restrictions in the particular community.

"They should try and make this campaign as long as possible because there's a lot of planning that has to go on to do this safely," Razak said. "They have to leave time for polling stations to be vetted and maximize safety."

Questions about safety in polling stations and campaign events across Canada arose as soon as news broke Thursday that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is expected to call a snap election within days. Trudeau is planning to visit Rideau Hall on Sunday to ask that Parliament be dissolved, said sources with knowledge of his plans who spoke to CBC News on the condition they not be named. The vote is said to be scheduled for Sept. 20.

On that day, poll workers will have to feel confident in their own safety, and so do voters lining up in polling stations where the vaccinated will almost certainly be mixing with the unvaccinated, Razak notes.

"You want to stretch out the voting period to minimize the density of people coming in and out on any one day or time," Razak said.

He also believes voters will make increased use of mail-in ballots, as it can be done safely.

Fahad Razak is an internal medicine physician at St. Michael’s Hospital, assistant professor at the University of Toronto, and a member of Ontario’s COVID-19 science advisory table. (CBC)

Elections Canada trying to ensure safe polling stations

Elections Canada says it's in the midst of identifying polling stations that can facilitate physical distancing, but also be accessible, available, and near voters.

Traditionally, elections have made use of local schools as polling stations given their proximity to communities. With the more transmissible delta variant dominant in the fourth wave, the agency says it has consulted with provincial and territorial health authorities who have reviewed its health and safety plans and polling station guidelines.

Elections Canada officers are also working with school boards, principals, and administrators to ensure voters remain separate from students and staff.

"We will be implementing all the adaptive measures and returning officers will work with school principals to implement additional or specific health and safety requirements," Elections Canada spokesperson Natasha Gauthier said in an email to CBC News.

For all polling locations, Elections Canada workers are ensuring that doors and windows are kept open, and air circulation is increased.

All workers, staff, officers, and just about everyone involved in the polling stations will be masked.

Parties must avoid 'superspreader event,' prof warns

Andrew McDougall, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Toronto Scarborough, says while the fourth wave is expected to bring a rise in daily case counts around election time, the parties will be extra careful to project the image that they're taking health and safety during the election seriously.

"It'd be a nightmare scenario if a party held a rally that turned into a superspreader event," he said. "They'll make sure that events and campaign methods follow public health advice."

McDougall says he can't predict whether the threat of COVID-19 will dissuade voters from heading to the polls, but he believes many campaign events will be held virtually, again for parties to project that they're taking the pandemic seriously.

"Everyone's going to have to pay close attention to local health restrictions," McDougall said.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ali Raza is a journalist at CBC News Toronto and CBC Radio. Born and raised in Brampton, Ontario, Ali has worked in community newsrooms across the Greater Toronto Area covering politics, crime, breaking news, and more. Have a news tip? Send it over to ali.raza@cbc.ca

With files from Dalia Ashry

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