Video shows dozens at engagement party attended by positive COVID case

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People in Melbourne’s inner south-eastern suburbs are on high alert after a guest at a crowded engagement party last week attended by dozens of people tested positive for coronavirus.

The video, seen by The Age, shows a gathering of people listening to a man giving an engagement speech to a crowded room of well-dressed guests at what appears to be a private residence.

“Clearly this is legal,” the man says to the room, “because this is a group therapy session.” The crowd, made up of men and women from young children to middle age, laughed at the joke.

“Thank you so much to everyone who came here tonight,” he says.

Private and public gatherings are not permitted under Victoria’s strict stage 4 lockdown, which began on August 5. Weddings are allowed in exceptional circumstances, but are always capped at five attendees.

The Age has chosen to run an audio recording of the speech and some still images, but not to name people in the video, or show their faces.

When contacted by The Age, the mother of the man speaking in the video, who was also in attendance, said her family was reeling from the experience.

“My son is broken over this,” she said, declining to speak further.

Screenshots of the man giving the speech at the gathering.

On Sunday health authorities said a mother and son from Melbourne’s tight-knit Orthodox Jewish community were announced among the state’s new coronavirus cases. Health officials told community leaders in meetings on Saturday and Sunday that the two new cases might have attended a large gathering in recent days.

The Age has confirmed the video, which was sent by multiple sources from the Orthodox Jewish community, is from the gathering being investigated by health authorities.

The engagement party was attended by dozens of people.

Engagement notices published online showed the date of the event as August 11. One person briefed by health officials and others with knowledge of the event confirmed that date.

Victorian authorities are preparing pop-up testing and vaccine sites in St Kilda East in response to the incident. Sources within Victoria’s Health Department confirmed that attendees at the event were currently undergoing extensive contact tracing.

Former Labor MP Philip Dalidakis said he recognised people from the video and was rendered “speechless” and “genuinely shocked about their brazen disregard for our laws”.

“There are people in it that I know and I am speechless. I am genuinely shocked at the brazen disregard for our laws. Not one person in the video should be there, not one person in the video is using masks, not one person in the video is considering the selfish impact their behaviour is now having,” he said.

“It is important to state clearly and unequivocally, this is an event that is not representative of the overwhelming Jewish community … However, small pockets of our Orthodox and Ultra Orthodox community need to see this event as an opportunity to reset and reflect on just how dangerous and selfish their behaviour has been.”

On Sunday the Rabbinical Council of Victoria has called on community members to follow public health rules and the Jewish Community Council of Victorian condemned prayer gatherings that were held during lockdowns last year in breach of restrictions.

The issue has caused debate within the community. Mount Scopus Memorial College principal James Kennard took to social media to urge people to stop gathering.

The Age has confirmed the video, which was sent by multiple sources inside the Orthodox Jewish community, is the gathering being investigated by authorities.

“It is painful to speak out against fellow-Jews in public. But at this time, the danger of staying silent is too great,” Rabbi Kennard wrote in response to a Facebook post by The Australian Jewish News.

“Because the law states that we must stay at home, because the experts tell us that this is the way to save lives, because of the risk of terrible Chillul Hashem (desecration of God’s name), every rabbi and leader must cry out. We must take the heartbreaking path and stop the gatherings – for prayer, for s’machot, for school. Just stop.”

Victorian COVID-19 response commander Jeroen Weimar said household gatherings were proving “dangerous” in the most recent outbreak.

“Household gatherings, household visits where you’re popping over just to see something to make sure they’re OK, they’re all understandable, but also dangerous because we’re seeing the virus hitch along and move from one cluster to another,” he said.

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