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With 23 bars packed into two city blocks, George Street is the thumping heart of St. John’s boozy nightlife. But in the era of COVID-19, the nightclub district is getting attention for a different reason – large crowds that some worry are risking another outbreak in Newfoundland.

Politicians and public health officials have been angered by photos circulating on social media showing hundreds of people this past weekend packed inside George Street bars, crammed onto dance floors and spilling outside. At a time when funerals, restaurants and children’s sporting events are still under strict limits for public gathering, it’s caused an uproar on the island.

“I don’t want to go back to where we were a few weeks ago, when everything was shut down,” said St. John’s Mayor Danny Breen. “The concern is always for another cluster. .... When people see those pictures, they’re understandably angry.”

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Newfoundland hasn’t had a confirmed case of COVID-19 in more than 40 days. As the province slowly reopens and welcomes more travellers from elsewhere in Atlantic Canada, anxiety is high that new cases might appear – similar to a new cluster linked to nightclubs in Quebec.

Bars owners on George Street, the kind of place where live music rolls out of every other door and where you can get three Jagerbombs for $10, say it’s difficult to control what happens outside their clubs. City officials, who say it’s up to the province to enforce public-health rules, are installing a fence to restrict access to George Street in advance of this weekend.

Health Minister John Haggie said the Newfoundland and Labrador Liquor Corporation is investigating the overcrowding complaints, and said some bars may lose their liquor licences.

“It really is a shame because it jeopardizes all of us,” Mr. Haggie said at a Wednesday news conference.

Newfoundlanders haven’t forgotten the COVID-19 outbreak that struck the province in March, after an infected person from out of province visited a St. John’s funeral home and sparked a cluster of more than 120 cases.

“We’re only starting to take our first tentative steps toward normalcy. You don’t want to be the wet blanket, the downer at the party, but people have got to do this safely,” said Jim Dinn, member of the provincial House of Assembly for St. John’s Centre.

“I like seeing my grandkids .... People don’t want a situation where this ruins it for everyone.”

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Premier Dwight Ball said after months of living under frustrating public health restrictions, a lot of Newfoundlanders were disappointed by the large gatherings they saw on George Street.

"We all know that you've worked hard, and reports like this go against everything we have, and will continue to put in place, to protect our health and well being," he said.

“One wrong move, like some of the ones that we saw over the weekend, some of the patrons of George Street, can put us back in our plan of moving forward.”

Bar reopenings have also raised concerns in Quebec, following outbreaks in Montreal’s South Shore, an area that until now hadn’t been hit hard by COVID-19.

On Sunday, the local public-health department urged everyone who had been at the Mile Public House on June 30 to be screened. The bar, which is located in the Dix30 shopping area in Brossard, said a group of people sitting at the same table had tested positive.

Photos shared on social media showed patrons jamming the Mile Public House’s terrace tables and packed in tight queues outside.

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“I find it unfortunate to see photos like those we’ve seen at the Dix30,” Premier François Legault said.

Quebec Health Minister Christian Dubé told reporters that he wanted to send a message to owners of bars and other places of public gathering.

Mr. Dubé said officials were looking at a range of enforcement steps, including suspending liquor licences, issuing fines to bar owners and clients, increasing police presence and adding restrictions such as limiting the seating capacities, reducing opening hours or forcing patrons to stay seated at their tables.

“I want to be clear, rules breakers will be penalized and we won’t hesitate to close a place if need be. We don’t want another weekend with those kinds of incidents,” the minister said.

With a report from Tu Thanh Ha

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