COVID-19: MEANING OF A GATHERING
The Regulations issued in terms of section 27(2) of the Disaster Management Act, 2002 on 17 March 2020 prohibit a ‘gathering’. The Regulations define a ‘gathering’ as: ‘any assembly, concourse or procession of more than 100 persons, wholly or partially in open air or in a building or premises’.
Regulation 3(3) provides that ‘the assembly of more than 50 persons at premises where liquor is sold and consumed is prohibited’.
Where a gathering takes place, an enforcement officer must order the people at the gathering to disperse immediately, and if they refuse, take appropriate action, including arrest and detention.
In terms of Regulation 11, any person who convenes a gathering, permits more than 50 persons at premises where liquor is sold and consumed, or hinders, interferes with or obstructs an enforcement officer in the exercise of her/ his duties, is guilty of an offence and, on conviction, liable to a fine or imprisonment of six months (or both a fine and imprisonment).
The purpose of the Regulations is to prevent an escalation of the COVID-19 disaster or to alleviate, contain and minimize the effects of the disaster. One of the measures to achieve this purpose is to limit social contact, and it is in this context that the term ‘gathering’ must be given meaning.
What is clear from the definition of a ‘gathering’ is that the following, where more than 100 people are present, are prohibited:
- marches/ demonstrations
- mass celebrations
- sport events
- staff briefings
- church services
Restaurants and staff canteens may operate with up to 100 patrons, but if they sell liquor and liquor is consumed at those premises, the number of people is limited to 50. In addition, these restaurants must provide ‘adequate space’ which means not more than one person per square metre of floor space.
What about people working in office blocks?
Bearing in mind that we are not yet in a lock-down and that significant efforts are made to ensure that businesses are able to continue to operate, we do not think that the definition precludes employees from attending work in office buildings.
The more difficult question relates to employees in factories, airports, ports, mines and other workplaces where there are more than 100 people in the same area at any given time.
In his speech on 15 March 2020, President Ramaphosa stated: ‘We call on all businesses including mining, retail, banking, farming to ensure that they take all necessary measures to intensify hygiene control’.
Businesses are not shut down; but there is a heightened duty of care in order to ensure a safe and healthy work environment where people are working in close proximity.
As things develop, the Government may well impose more severe restrictions on movement, and we may need to reassess employers’ obligations at that point.
As things stand, we are of the view that normal business operations are meant to carry on, subject to necessary measures in relation to hygienic conditions and limitation of exposure to persons with COVID-19.