Government House grounds close after too many large gatherings

The head of Government House says it had no choice but to close the gates to its grounds after large groups of people held birthday parties and yoga ­sessions on the property and even brought in fire pits and barbecues.

Jerymy Brownridge, private secretary to the lieutenant governor and executive director of Government House, said a ­notification from Island Health last week raised concerns about the size of the gatherings, prompting the closure of the 36-acre property. “The general concern was the number of gatherings and the [possible impact] to public health,” said Brownridge. “Normally we are happy to see people gather here, but now is not the time.”

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He said Government House will reassess the closure by next Friday. Notices have been posted at entrances along Rockland Avenue.

The grounds in the Rockland-Fairfield neighbourhood are a popular destination for neighbours and others in the region. The property ranges from manicured walkways and meticulous lawns and flower beds to rough pathways that meander down a southward slope with native plants, vegetable gardens and historical outbuildings. The paths offer wide views of Juan de Fuca Strait.

The closure brought a chorus of criticism from regular users, including many who said they were following provincial health recommendations to spend time outdoors.

Several have written letters to the editor of the Times Colonist. “In the middle of a pandemic, the ability to walk through gardens both formal and casual … is a balm,” said Victorian Brian Jones. “I was shocked to discover that the grounds have been closed, the reason being too many graybeards are gathering at the gazebo.”

Others criticized Lt. Gov. Janet Austin, who normally resides there but is off site as Government House goes through a major renovation. Paul Cunningham said the decision “smacks of elitism. “These are stressful times and for those of us lucky to live nearby, walking in the gardens is crucial to our mental health,” he said. “I simply fail to understand the risk in visiting this little piece of heaven.”

Brownridge said large gatherings were happening everywhere on the site, and involved everyone from youth to seniors.

“We started seeing a large spike in gatherings just before Dr. Bonnie Henry’s new orders last Thursday, and we understand people need a place to gather,” said Brownridge. “I understand that people are upset, but with the notification from Island Health, we have to weigh one against the other, and large gatherings at this point are not [allowed].”

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