Surrey politicians appear to have violated public health order as COVID-19 cases in region skyrocketed
VANCOUVER -- The MP for Surrey Centre and a Surrey city councillor appear to have violated a provincial health order just days before B.C.’s top doctor warned the coronavirus was disproportionately affecting communities in the Fraser Valley.
The questionable behaviour was recorded by cameras from community media outlets late last month, when Liberal MP Randeep Sarai and Coun. Mandeep Nagra were attending a welcome dinner for India's new envoy to Vancouver.
Photographs first obtained by Bob Mackin of TheBreaker.news show the elected leaders posing with as many as eight other men inside a Surrey restaurant, sometimes without masks or not physically distanced from others in the group.
One image, published on social media by AAJ Media Group, shows Nagra seated at a table with seven other people. Provincial restrictions that were in place at the time and remain in effect cap the number of restaurant guests allowed to sit together at six, even if they belong to the same party. Groups of six are also not supposed to mingle with other tables.
Another image, published online by DesiBuzz Canada, shows Sarai and Nagra standing side-by-side in a group of 10 men, including India's new consul general.
Anita Huberman, the CEO of the Surrey Board of Trade, called the behaviour by local leaders “absolutely unacceptable.”
“If our leaders are not going to adhere to public safety protocols, why would others?” Huberman said.
Suki Pangalia, the CEO of AAJ Media Group, who covered the dinner and published some of the photos, told CTV News that for most of the evening, the roughly 20-25 guests physically distanced and remained at their assigned tables.
Pangalia said problem came at the end of the dinner with the chance for a photo op with the diplomat and local leaders.
“The responsibility does lie on not only the politician,” Pangalia said. “The responsibility lies on everybody.”
Pangalia also expressed regret for how the evening ended.
That regret was echoed by Sarai, who told CTV News the moments of the evening that violated COVID-19 protocols made him “uncomfortable.”
“They did have people probably move around, which unfortunately is wrong,” Sarai said. “(The organizers) should have done better, and it would have been better had they not had the event at all.”
Sarai provided additional photos that showed him both seated and standing while wearing a mask, as well as maintaining distance in a maskless photo alongside India’s new top diplomat.
He also told CTV News he left the dinner early and had no intention of attending something similar in the near future.
“Is that an apology I’m hearing to the community?” CTV News asked.
“Oh yeah," Sarai said. "I apologize."
Coun. Nagra told Mackin of the TheBreaker.news he also had his mask on the majority of the evening.
“I was there for 15 minutes,” Nagra said. “I would say I had my mask on for 14 minutes. I only took my mask off for one minute to get that photo done.”
Nagra added he did not shake any hands and “followed all the guidelines.”
And when asked about the photo with eight people at his table, a clear violation of public health orders, Nagra said one or two more people “just came in for the picture.”
Two emails to India’s consul general, listed as Mr. Manish, along with two vice-consuls were not returned by deadline.
The dinner came three days before Dr. Bonnie Henry, B.C.’s provincial health officer, held her bi-weekly briefing in Surrey for the first time because of a jump in COVID-19 cases traced back to homes and private parties.
At the time, public health officials asked residents in the region to drastically reduce their contacts, and made an unusual appeal to people not to gather with anyone who didn’t live in their households.
On Tuesday, the welcome dinner’s organizer, the Chetna Association of Canada, told CTV News it also regretted hosting the dinner.
“We acknowledge that (COVID-19) rules were not fully adhered to,” Jai Birdi said in a statement.
“In hindsight, this situation has provided (us) with an opportunity to reflect,” Birdi went on.
The Board of Trade’s Huberman said she worried, with the South Asian festival of Diwali coming up this weekend, the photos could influence some in the community not to take COVID-19 seriously.
“Our economy is going to be compromised,” Huberman warned. “You will lose your business. Someone close to you will die.”
And Pangalia, who spoke to CTV News because he said he saw the missteps of the evening as an opportunity to educate friends and neighbours bluntly added: “Too often we try to be too nice. But too nice is killing people.”