The scene in the video looks like a typical summer night at Clifton Hill — pre-COVID-19.
The popular Niagara Falls tourism promenade is packed with people standing in line for attractions, pushing strollers through the crowd, some holding balloons.
A few wear masks, but that’s the only sign of the pandemic that’s infected more than 800 people in the Niagara Region and killed 64.
The response to the video was swift.
Residents took to social media to share their shock at the lack of physical distancing and other measures to curb the spread of the virus. And, on Thursday, mayor Jim Diodati announced a new team of ambassadors who will patrol the area offering hand sanitizer, selling masks and reminding people to stay at least two metres apart.
The program will start immediately, he said, and each person will be wearing a highlighter yellow shirt bearing the words “Crush the Curve.”
“There’ll be dozens of them and they’ll be on both sides of Clifton Hill, top to bottom,” said Diodati.
The video, uploaded to YouTube by an account called Amusement Insiders, is titled “SHUT DOWN Niagara Falls.”
Brendon Cross, whose email address is associated with the channel, confirmed it was recorded on July 18.
“Seeing the video was quite disappointing,” said Dr. Mustafa Hirji, acting medical officer of health for Niagara.
“I think it’s absolutely critical that people see this video and take note this is not what we should be doing.”
Hirji specifically pointed to the large gathers with a lack of physical distancing and noted “extremely few people seem to be wearing face coverings,” he said.
It’s important that people wear masks, stay at least two metres apart and keep washing their hands, he said. Crowds run the risk of allowing the virus to spread and make it incredibly difficult to trace who may have been exposed in the event a positive case is present.
“This very much looks like people feel things have gone back to normal, the pandemic is over, we’ve beaten it, so they can go back to their previous behaviours,” said Hirji.
Jim Taber said he first saw it shared on Facebook and though “Wow, this is crazy.”
The 64-year-old and his wife retired and moved to Niagara Falls four years ago. They’d generally visit Clifton Hill at least twice a month, but that’s stopped since the pandemic began.
“We avoid it pretty much like the plague,” he said.
Go-karts shut down
Taber was especially struck by people “lined up like cattle” to get on the Niagara Speedway go-karts.
“You can clearly see that people are just not paying attention to distancing. There’s no one wearing masks and I find it very disturbing.”
In fact, the go-karts were shut down Thursday after a track worker tested positive for COVID-19.
Joel Noden, director of marketing for HOCO Limited, said a teen, who would help check seatbelts and straighten karts that had spun out, called in sick on July 15th after working five shifts at the attraction.
The company found out about the positive test on Sunday, said Noden, and has since checked the security footage to track the workers movements and direct anyone who came into contact with him to isolate.
Masks are mandatory for all workers and the track was already cleaning helmets and sanitizing straps, so Noden said they’re not worried about customers being exposed.
“When we spoke with the person from the health department they said the contact was so minimal and the precautions in place … with the face coverings and everything,” he said.
Diodati said he and his family actually drove past Clifton Hill on the day the video was shot and were struck by how busy it was.
Officials aren’t sure why the spike in visitors happened, but the mayor said the falls were lit up to celebrate the 201 years of Columbian independence and that many people who came to see the display ended up at attractions afterwards.
The region relies heavily on tourism and has struggled during the pandemic, but Diodati said the video reminded him “careful what you wish for.”
He admitted the city is still working on determining the best way to deal with crowds and noted Niagara Regional Council will be voting on a mandatory mask bylaw Thursday night.
In the meantime he’s hopeful the ambassadors, who will be funded by the local tourism industry, will help protect visitors.
“We’re going to focus on compliance rather than conviction to get the message out that we all have a responsibility to make sure the guests are safe, to make sure that the employees are safe and to make sure that our community is safe,” he said.
For his part, Taber said he’ll keep wearing a mask in public and plans to stay far from Clifton Hill and other local attractions until the virus is gone.
“The falls will be there when this is over. We’ll go down then,” he explained. “But at our age if we catch COVID we run the risk of not being able to go down to the falls ever again.”