OTTAWA — ]In the waning daylight of a cool August evening in northeast Calgary, Liberal tour staff used measuring tape and chalk paint to draw out physical distancing circles at a Thursday mini-campaign rally.
A limited crowd of preapproved supporters were then directed to stand within the circles with only their own households for the duration of the event. Do not rush the stage to get close to Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, they were told. He will come to you.
Everything seemed to go to plan inside the official perimeter, as Trudeau delivered a stump speech on a podium and then moved around from circle to circle bumping elbows and posing for photos with the 80 people who made the cut to get inside.
But as soon as Trudeau stepped outside the barrier, the crowd of supporters who showed up despite not making that cut threw all the best-laid pandemic precautions to the wind, surging towards the leader en masse, jockeying for the chance to get that desired photo or the coveted elbow bump.
They were all wearing masks — the Liberals insisted on it even for those not admitted inside the official perimeter — but the throngs around Trudeau could not meet any definition of physical distancing.
The event was not unique.
From the lively streets of Trudeau’s own riding of Papineau in Montreal, to the quaint downtown environs of Cobourg and Aurora, Ont., or the street outside the Vancouver Convention Centre, the first week of the Trudeau election tour was a repeated reminder of just how hard it might be to run anything resembling a normal campaign while keeping true to pandemic restrictions.
But even as the Liberals took steps to limit publicity on most daily tour stops, word of mouth travels quickly, especially on social media.
Hundreds of eager fans and small pockets of what appeared to be organized but angry anti-vaccine protesters flocked to the events. Despite a heavier than usual security detail, keeping everyone roughly two metres apart proved to be impossible.
Trudeau, who spent much of the first week defending the decision to call an election as a fourth wave of COVID-19 is starting to surge, said Friday he feels things are still safe.
“It is important to follow public health measures, which is why we are wearing masks,” he said at tour stop in Winnipeg.
“We are getting regularly tested. We are following the local public health rules as much as possible — as much as everyone is across the country.”
He said it is important to continue to follow public health measures, though he sidestepped answering a direct question about whether the campaign crowds are sending the wrong message to Canadians.
Chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam has said she thinks an election can be held safely, but has been careful to remind parties and Elections Canada staff alike that public health measures must still be followed.
“There are public health measures that people have to observe including local measures on gathering sizes but also best practices in any of those gatherings, mask wearing being one of them, outdoors being better than indoors,” she said on Aug. 12.
“… Everybody who is going to show up at any gathering should protect themselves maximally, which includes vaccinations.”
On Friday, Tam reported that new infections of COVID-19 had jumped to an average of more than 2,200 new cases a day. That’s up 38 per cent in just one week and is driven mostly by the spread of the more infectious Delta variant among unvaccinated Canadians.
All the campaigns have implemented infection control measures, from requiring face masks, full vaccinations and daily rapid tests for anyone on tour, to setting crowd limits and avoiding the kind of massive rallies reminiscent of campaigns past.
The Liberals have previously brought out hundreds of supporters toting campaign signs just to send Trudeau off on his campaign plane for the first time. In 2021, however, Trudeau boarded his plane for the first time on day three, waving at the top of the stairs only to a handful of staff and the small pool of media travelling with the tour.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 21, 2021.