Red River Ex hopes new public health order will allow drive-thru show to go on

The head of a non-profit organization that puts on a drive-thru winter lights display is hoping the Manitoba government will change course and allow the show to go on when new pandemic rules are released this week.

Already over a million dollars in the hole from government-forced shutdowns, the Red River Exhibition Association thought its winter drive-thru lights show would be an approved event but public health forced the event to go dark.

“The case is a little bit thin to close us down and we’re hopeful that they’ll take that into consideration,” said Garth Rogerson, CEO of the association.

Manitoba’s current public health order, which expires on Friday, bans social interactions in private homes unless someone lives alone, and doesn’t allow gatherings of more than five at any public place. It also forces most businesses to close with some exceptions.

Drive-thrus at restaurants like Starbucks, McDonald’s and Tim Hortons have all stayed open but churches have been fined for holding drive-in services.

The Red River Ex’s show features more than one million lights along a 2.5-kilometre driving route. (redriverex/Instagram)

Rogerson said he asked the government if the light show could go on since there is no in-person activity at the event this year. He said the answer was no.

“We’re asking for the same opportunity that any other business would have, like a fast-food restaurant or a grocery store, whatever. It’s not really any different. You drive through in fact, with no stopping, there really is no reason to not allow it.”

Minimal risk: Infectious disease expert

Both Health Canada and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have encouraged the use of drive-thrus for getting food and other goods throughout the pandemic.

“I think if people stay in their cars, then there is minimal risk,” said Dr. Anna Banerji, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at the University of Toronto.

Banerji said the trick with drive-in events is making sure people don’t leave their vehicle. “You have to make sure that there is no popcorn etc, and washrooms may be an issue,” she said adding, “I think people are stressed out and may need a relief.”

Manitoba’s chief provincial public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin suggested Monday the risk of transmission in a drive-in is low.

“Certainly if everyone stays in their car the entire time, if it’s only household members within that car for the whole time, then that dramatically reduces the risk so these are things that we’re looking at.”

Rolling down windows lowers risk

But he said last week drive-in events aren’t risk-free, citing washroom use and having people from multiple households in one car as possible problems.

Experts at Harvard University have previously said a vehicle with closed windows can lead to COVID aerosol particles accumulating quickly due to poor ventilation — a risk they found is significantly mitigated if windows are cracked open a bit.

Rogerson doesn’t think it’s fair people can walk around outside to look at Christmas lights in other parts of the city — like Linden Woods, which had long lines of cars over the weekend.

“There’s a real mixed message that’s saying some things are OK, but no, that thing isn’t OK. So if we’re going to be shut down, then let’s be shut down. But if we’re going to be open, then let’s look at what is being requested to be open and make those decisions based on the activity.”

Roussin said the new public health order would be unveiled sometime early this week.

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