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Attendees, organizers address mask-less audience at Chamber of Commerce event

This photo, posted to Twitter by Mayor Bryan Paterson, shows those in attendance at the Greater Kingston Chamber of Commerce’s State of the City meeting sitting physically distanced, but without masks.

On Friday, Oct. 16, 2020, the Greater Kingston Chamber of Commerce hosted its annual State of the City event, hosting Kingston’s three political leaders who briefed those in attendance about the current state of the city, particularly through a COVID-19 lens.

But it wasn’t long before those online pointed out the irony of the situation – While Mayor Bryan Paterson, MP Mark Gerretsen, and MPP Ian Arthur spoke of how the current pandemic has impacted Kingston, those in attendance watched on, without masks, at the indoor event.

“Delighted to join the @ChamberYGK for a socially distanced “State of the City” event. A good dialogue, and some tough questions, but it’s good to be talking about #ygk now and how we plan to move forward through the pandemic!” Paterson wrote on Twitter, along with the above photo.

That tweet alone prompted over 20 replies, many of which pointed out the unmasked crowd. Paterson replied to a few comments, clarifying that the event – which was held indoors at the Holiday Inn Kingston-Waterfront – followed the protocols that are in effect for places such as restaurants and conference facilities, where masks do not need to be worn by those seated six feet apart. He also clarified that the indoor/outdoor limitations on the number of people gathering (which are currently 10/25 respectively) do not apply to facilities like bars, restaurants, cinemas, convention centres, etc.

However, members of the public felt that ‘leading by example’ is important as the province braces during the second wave of the pandemic. Furthermore, a number of social media users took issue with the fact that this event took place as Queen’s University’s Homecoming weekend kicked off – an event during which Kingston Police, KFL&A Public Health, the City of Kingston, and the University had urged students to refrain from gathering or partying as students have at previous Homecoming weekends.

“Students at Queen’s get a lot of criticism and blame for “spreading the virus”. We have been suffering with online classes, restrictions in rez, and the inability to visit our families during thanksgiving. Meanwhile…. the mayor is holding a ‘super spreader’ event,” noted one Twitter user in response to Paterson’s photo.

Kingstonist reached out to the Greater Kingston Chamber of Commerce to find out more about the regulations and protocols that were in place at the event, and why those in attendance did not have to wear masks. To be clear, all those in attendance seem to be following physical distancing rules in photos and videos from the event, and do wear masks when they are not.

“Working with our venue, Holiday Inn Kingston-Waterfront, and with KFL&A Public Health, we took all the necessary COVID-19 precautions to ensure the safety of attendees,” said Karen Cross, CEO of the Greater Kingston Chamber of Commerce.

“This included social distancing, hand sanitizing, screening attendees for COVID symptoms, keeping attendance below 50, and masking when necessary,” Cross said, noting that masking was not necessary when attendees were seated with their drinks, or the speaker was at the podium.

When asked if, in an environment where civic leaders are trying to convince people to avoid unnecessary contact, it was necessary to hold this meeting in-person, Cross expressed that the strong registration numbers for the event suggested there was significant interest in holding an in-person event.

“This is likely due to the networking opportunities which are a key part of these events,” she said. “We offered both online and in-person as options. We anticipated strong online attendance but had technical issues on the day of the event. Ultimately, it was only those who were in-person who got to enjoy the event that morning.”

Cross said the Chamber received no questions, complaints, or concerns from registrants or others about COVID-19 safety leading up to the event, and no questions since (apart from those from Kingstonist). The limit of attendees for the event was 50, she said, but, including speakers, there were 40 actually in attendance.

When asked for comment about the public perception of Kingston’s political leaders addressing an unmasked crowd, Paterson reiterated that the Chamber and the venue were abiding by applicable COVID-19 protocols, but expressed some regret over the decision.

“Mask rules were in effect as required for the facility, and these rules were communicated to attendees by the event organizers. Masks were worn and enforced anytime someone was not seated and 6 feet apart,” Paterson said in an email to Kingstonist.

“That being said, we had an opportunity to demonstrate leadership by holding to a higher standard, and I regret we didn’t set a better example for the community.”

Similarly, Ian Arthur also underlined that guidelines were in place and being followed.

“I respect and adhere to all public health guidelines,” he said, noting that those in attendance were given coffee and water, which permitted them to be seated without a mask on.

“Kingston has had an amazing response to COVID-19 and I give full credit to the clarity of messaging from Dr Moore and KFLA Public Health.”

When asked if there was anything that took place during the event that could not have occurred via a virtual event, Arthur said “No.”

Mark Gerretsen also agreed that the event could have been held virtually.

“That could have been done via Zoom, and might actually have reached a larger audience,” he said.

“I’m more than happy to participate in meetings by Zoom, both smaller and larger groups and, in fact, I encouraged it during this pandemic.”

Gerretsen shared his own experience with having to skip a previous Chamber meeting due to COVID-19.

“I had actually cancelled my attendance at the first scheduled meeting, as a member of my family was being tested, and while we were waiting for the results I didn’t want to take the chance,” he said.

Like Paterson and Arthur, Gerretsen pointed out that COVID-19 guidelines were adhered to at the event in terms of the number of people gathered and the spacing of those in attendance. He also noted that he wore a mask at all times apart from when he was speaking at the podium.

But when asked about the upset from the public over the mask-less audience, Gerretsen said he was pleased to see people questioning it.

“I think people are well-warranted in expressing concern, and I’m glad people are expressing those concerns,” he said.

“The rules are that masks are to be worn when inside and where physical distancing is not an option.”

Kingstonist also reached out to KFL&A Public Health, who confirmed that they are aware of this meeting and the unmasked attendees and are currently “following up with the event holder.”

With files from Cris Vilela.

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