Southwest Saskatchewan outdoor gathering outbreak raises red flags

Throughout the pandemic, the message has been that outdoors is safer than indoors when it comes to meeting up with other people.

But with the Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA) linking an outbreak to an albeit “large outdoor gathering” and more transmissible COVID-19 variants on the rise, epidemiologist Nazeem Muhajarine warns people to take extra precautions.

“It is still safe,” Muhajarine told Global News Thursday. “But if you are going to be outside, don’t get together with large groups of people for a long time, particularly without a mask, particularly in close quarters.”

Read more: COVID-19 has changed. Should our outdoor behaviour shift too?

On Wednesday, the SHA prepared a statement that said a medical health officer had declared an outbreak in relation to an outside event that took place in Saskatchewan’s southwest, and that at least 21 coronavirus cases that included variants of concern had been connected to it so far.

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The government’s outbreak website has been updated to include “a recreational party in the community” of Maple Creek.

Saskatchewan’s health minister was pressed about the situation on Wednesday, and again on Thursday. Paul Merriman expressed disappointment and added that he heard the gathering exceeded the 10 person cap explicit under existing public health orders.

Read more: Increased COVID-19 variant risk in Saskatchewan areas due to gatherings: SHA

In recent days, the SHA has issued alerts about the increased risk associated with communities in the southwest. Maple Creek is named, as is Outlook, Rosetown, Kindersley, Swift Current, Davidson, Moose Jaw and the surrounding areas.

In Wednesday’s statement, the SHA noted: “Contact tracing investigations are ongoing for cases connected to other outdoor gatherings in the southwest.”

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For some families that have been waiting for the warmer weather to get outside, and potentially even socialize in accordance with the rules, the news is concerning.

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Whitney Blaisdell’s family did have a bubble with one other family earlier in the pandemic and that during the winter, they continued to allow their kids fraternize outdoors.

“Right now, it just seems so intense,” said Blaisdell, a popular Regina Instagrammer who had become known for promoting activities in the community. “We haven’t made any plans to see people outside.”

For months now, she has been bringing masks to the playground when she takes her two young kids. They usually opt to put them on when there are others around versus leave, Blaisdell said. But lately, she said she’s been making an even more concerted effort to go at off-peak times.

“The safer that we behave, and our interpretation of what that means, the better we seem to feel,” she said.

Shawn Weimer, the executive director of Run Regina, says his organization has been putting out similar messaging, encouraging people to still get outdoors, but safely.

“It’s time for us to reflect back to what we did a year ago when the pandemic started, and really consider running close to home and doing our physical activity right from our front door,” he said.

When it comes to popular places and high-traffic areas, “now is probably a good time to wear that mask,” Weimer said. “It can be done. It’s not always comfortable. But it is something that’s important for us to do.”

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