Erin O’Toole says his COVID diagnosis demonstrated the need for Canadians to remain “extremely vigilant” — but social media postings and conversations with people who met with O’Toole before his COVID diagnosis show that he interacted with dozens of people in the course of one day of travel and events in Montreal.
While the Conservatives say they won’t “speculate” on how many people connected to the multi-day Montreal visit earlier this month might have contracted COVID, a source who spoke to CBC News said there are approximately 15 COVID cases related to the trip, including staff members, O’Toole himself and his wife.
Social media posts show O’Toole making an attempt to socially distance at the events — but also show he removed his mask during indoor gatherings on several occasions.
“We continue to follow public health guidelines, as we have since the beginning of COVID-19 while Mr. O’Toole campaigned for leader,” said O’Toole’s director of communications, Melanie Paradis.
Politicians across the country and around the world are struggling with the problem of arranging public activities without putting themselves, their staff and supporters at risk.
Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet is in the same boat as O’Toole: he travelled, held events and, at times, removed his mask shortly before testing positive for COVID-19.
After his wife Sophie Grégoire Trudeau contracted the virus while on a trip to the United Kingdom back in March, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau went into isolation, conducting regular pandemic updates with the media outside his home at Rideau Cottage. A masked Trudeau took part in a massive anti-racism rally on Parliament Hill in June, leading his critics to accuse the PM of hypocrisy for urging Canadians to avoid large gatherings while attending one himself.
CBC News showed photos of O’Toole and Blanchet engaged in meet-and-greet activities to a Montreal epidemiologist. Dr. Christopher Labos said that while the images themselves aren’t “particularly egregious,” the whole practice of in-person appearances by politicians needs to be reconsidered while the pandemic rages on.
“We might have to put those expectations on hold in the current climate because we don’t want people interacting with a bunch of different groups, a bunch of different individuals,” he said.
The room where it happened?
On Sunday, Sept. 13 alone, O’Toole attended a variety of events in Montreal, including a Sunday mass, a “meet and greet” with young professionals, a roundtable with the Lebanese community and gatherings with former Conservative candidates and organizers.
One person who took part in O’Toole’s visit told CBC News the roughly 15 cases can be traced back largely to the Sunday morning gatherings. That individual’s name is being withheld because of the sensitive nature of the health issues involved.
O’Toole’s team wouldn’t confirm the estimate of 15 cases, although a spokesperson did acknowledge the party has a list of everyone who registered for an event or had a meeting with O’Toole in Montreal.
“Because some people who contract COVID-19 do not exhibit symptoms, it would be irresponsible to speculate on the number of people who may have become infected,” said Paradis.
“We do know, however, that Mr. O’Toole, his wife Rebecca and two staff travelling with Mr. O’Toole have tested positive for COVID-19.”
It seems, however, that some members of O’Toole’s Montreal entourage have at least a sense of how many people on the team have tested positive now.
“A lot of the O’Toole Quebec team has also tested positive in the last few days. Volunteers and others,” tweeted one of O’Toole leadership deputy campaign chairs, Jim Burnett, on the day the news of O’Toole’s diagnosis broke. Burnett wished them all well.
A lot of the O’Toole Quebec team has also tested positive in the last few days. Volunteers and others. My thoughts are also with them and their families. Get better all!
All events in Montreal abided by public health guidelines, said Paradis, noting that a second wave had not been declared at the time of the visit.
In most of the photos from those morning meetings examined by CBC News, O’Toole and the participants are wearing masks — but there are several exceptions.
In one, O’Toole can be seen unmasked standing next to an also-unmasked Quebec Conservative Sen. Leo Housakos, who is addressing the room. O’Toole also posed for at least two photos with former Conservative candidates in which no one is seen wearing a mask, although the images do suggest some effort to distance.
‘One of those things’
Former Conservative candidate David Tordjman was among the participants at one of O’Toole’s Sunday morning events. He posed for pictures with O’Toole, along with several others. Tordjman said he has since been diagnosed with COVID-19.
He said there were about 30 people in attendance while he was with the Conservative leader.
“I know everybody there was exercising social protocols and distancing and wearing masks. It was a bit of a surprise that it happened,” he told CBC News.
“It was one of those things. It’s hard to pinpoint where it happened.”
Tordjman said it was an email from a member of O’Toole’s team that first alerted him to the risk of COVID exposure during the Montreal trip. Just hours after getting that message, he said, he started experiencing symptoms, including a loss of smell.
Ann Francis, who ran for the Conservatives in the last federal election in the Quebec riding of Lac-Saint-Louis, had her picture taken with O’Toole and another former candidate while all three were maskless.
“The only time I removed my mask is when I took a picture with Erin,” she said.
Francis said participants took care to maintain two metres’ distance from each another and keep their masks on during the rest of the event.
“We followed the protocols and did our best,” said Francis, who described the event itself as a gathering of fewer than 40 people and an opportunity for O’Toole to “rally the troops.”
She said her COVID test came back negative, although she continues to self-isolate as a precaution.
Another video from later in the day does show O’Toole removing his mask again — this time to address the congregation at the Saint-Sauveur Melkite Cathedral in Montreal while standing next to a bishop, who is also unmasked.
It’s not known whether O’Toole would have been contagious or even infected at the time. The first person on O’Toole’s staff to test positive for COVID was part of the team travelling with him in Montreal. O’Toole’s office became aware of the staffer being unwell on Tuesday, said Paradis.
O’Toole met one-on-one with Quebec Premier François Legault during the visit. Legault has since tested negative for COVID but continues to self-isolate as a precaution. O’Toole also took questions from reporters after his meeting with the premier, although that event was held outside and distancing precautions were taken.
Blanchet, meanwhile, tested positive after two possible exposure events. A staff member at the party’s caucus retreat on Sept 8 later tested positive, prompting the Bloc caucus and staff members to self-isolate. One week later, Blanchet’s wife, Nancy Déziel, tested positive. Blanchet’s diagnosis came three days after that.
Online images of Blanchet’s activities raise the same questions that came up after O’Toole’s trip. Photos of the caucus retreat in Saint-Hyacinthe, Que. show an indoor news conference involving Blanchet and three Bloc MPs. None are wearing masks, although all seem to be physically distancing.
Two days later, Blanchet travelled to two northern Quebec ridings in the Abitibi region. Photos of the three-day trip tweeted out by the Bloc often show Blanchet masked — but they also depict him taking part in an indoor roundtable discussion where no one is wearing a mask. One local media outlet reported his activities also included a beer and sausage tasting.
On September 13, Blanchet attended an event for the Bloc’s new candidate in a Montreal riding. One picture posted to social media shows Blanchet unmasked and applauding as the candidate goes up on stage. In another, Blanchet enters a room with several dozen supporters, a minority of whom are unmasked.
The Bloc announced on Sept 24 that no staff members apart from the originally infected staffer and Blanchet himself have tested positive for COVID.
In response to CBC News’ questions about how many people Blanchet interacted with and whether appropriate precautions were taken, the Bloc sent a statement that did not address the specific questions about his activities.
“All of [Blanchet’s] activities before his diagnosis were analyzed by Public Health, which determined that no one was put at risk during his trip to Abitibi and during the nomination in Hochelaga,” according to the Bloc.
The party respected public health requirements and even applied measures and rules that were more strict than those that were recommended, a spokesperson added. She argued that the Bloc showed its commitment to transparency and diligence by making the positive COVID test results public.
On Friday afternoon, O’Toole’s office said he continued to experience mild COVID symptoms. His wife is experiencing more symptoms, including a headache, officials said.
Asked if the number of people infected caused O’Toole’s team to reflect on whether all the appropriate precautions were taken, Paradis pointed to O’Toole’s remarks about how his family’s own situation is a reminder of the need for vigilance.
In fact, O’Toole went even further when discussing his situation with The Toronto Star. In an interview earlier this week, he said that politicians should uphold the best practices when it comes to stopping the spread of COVID.
“[A]s MPs we have to not just adhere to the rules but to make sure we’re practising the highest standards and not inadvertently exposing other people,”said O’Toole.