Flashback April: People stand on the roadway along Production Drive, Sea Lots, after being warned by officers from the Port-of-Spain Division Task Force to disperse after it was reported that a Zesser party was in progress.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic Jacob Wallace (not his real name) has attended three illegal parties, or as they are called, “Zesser parties” or “Curfew parties”.

“It’s dependent on where it is being hosted and who is hosting it,” he said.

The term Zesser party has been linked to illegal limes or parties held during a pandemic in areas along the east-west Corridor, Central etc, where laws prohibit socialising in large crowds or being out after the established hours set for the curfew. They have also been referred to as Wesser parties (held in upscale areas in the West) or Fantasy Weddings.

Wallace, who asked to remain anonymous, said he was obedient at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and followed all the public health measures but eventually got fed up.

“Being indoors became entirely boring, so yeah, I did become entirely stressed out, you know. Just looking at these walls all the time, it was getting to me,” he explained.

Fully vaccinated, he was not worried about contracting COVID-19 even though many of the over one hundred people he partied with were not wearing masks or socially distanced.

“Majority of the people wasn’t wearing mask, I wore one at one point but when I started drinking and the alcohol lowered my inhibition I just took it off,” he said.

The parties, which were all hosted in east Trinidad had no police intervention. Wallace said he believes it’s because of connections between the host and the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service (TTPS).

“They allow them,” he claimed.

But, Acting Police Commissioner McDonald Jacob said once police officers are involved in any illicit activity they can be charged.

He admitted that the public versus private argument held some officers back from raiding some events but that had now been cleared up.

“I also know that there may be collusion in relation to some police officers who may support those things, we always have that happening, okay. But when we find out we investigate and take the appropriate action,” he said.

Jacob said if a police officer failed to report such an event they can be charged for omission to act and if they participate or organise such event they can be charged for misbehaviour in public office.

“When things happen we focus on the rogue elements in the police service, yes, because they have the responsibility to uphold the law. But what about the citizens?” he questioned.

In the last 18 months, the police cracked down on several Zesser parties across the country. Some headlines read: “250 detained as TTPS raids Zesser party in Central;” “Tobago cops to crack down on villa fetes as COVID cases rise;” 44 arrested at ‘Zesser’ party in La Horquetta. They accompanied photos or videos of patrons spread out on the ground after the police raid.

The TTPS was unable to provide Guardian Media with statistics on the number of Zesser parties raided during the pandemic.

Former commissioner of police Gary Griffith, when contacted a few weeks ago, said the TTPS was entrusted with the job of enforcing the Public Health Regulations and to ensure that people stay within the law, but they cannot be everywhere.

“So we depend on our slogan, ‘See Something, Say Something’. We have received many calls to our Operations Command Centre where we responded and caught people breaking the law,” Griffith said via WhatsApp.

He said they have responded on many occasions where people have been involved in Curfew parties, Zesser parties, and in one case, an indoor party where several young people from influential families were found partying.

Police raided more than one Zesser party at a house in Real Spring, Valsayn, during the pandemic.

“Mainly the people that will host the parties are locals but the attendees would be locals alongside a lot of Spanish,” Wallace had said.

Griffith said in many cases, there were the issues of no masks, no social distancing and congregating in large numbers. He said the possibility of the spread of COVID-19 was real in these places.

One bar owner, who also asked to remain anonymous, said while some people host these parties for the “vibes”, others take the risk to keep financially afloat.

“Things was slow,” he said.

Since the first set of restrictions in April 2020, the Barkeepers & Operators Association had been complaining about slow sales and clamouring for longer hours. They said many bars couldn’t reopen.

In November 2020, Government allocated $30 million to bail out restaurant and bar employees and self-employed people.

Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley announced the reopening of some places and created safe zones for vaccinated people. From October 11, cinemas and theatres, casinos and betting shops, bars and restaurants, and gyms and fitness centres/studios were allowed to reopen with the creation of these safe zones. The owners of these establishments are to ensure all their staff are vaccinated.

Psychiatrist speaks

Psychiatrist Dr Varma Deyalsingh said Government’s bubble idea will give people, especially the youth, some release after months of restriction.

“With the youth…now they have reached a level of frustration where you have to be very cautious, you have to keep reminding them of the situation, so you have to put it to them that you have that baby step they could make before they have full opening,” he said.

But he said there will always be those who will try to flout the law, believe nothing will happen to them and will not listen to the Government. It’s why he was never surprised when news of a Zesser raid came up.

“Remember, we are social beings and we have the need to interact with other persons”, he said.

Deyalsingh said illegal gatherings took place in other cultures (South Africa, England) as well and it’s because people have that need to have that social release, mainly young people who feel invincible, ‘Young and strong’,” he explained.

He said he feels sorry for them.

“This girl was always planning her 16th birthday party for years and she now missed out on her party so this was a big thing for her life, so not having that event caused her to go into a depressed state… she actually started to self-harm…so you do have individuals who are taking it in a level,” Dr Deyalsingh explained.

Health officials in this country acknowledge these circumstances and continue to beg citizens not to congregate, especially now with the Delta variant amongst the population.

Minister of Health Terrence Deyalsingh was “deeply concerned” about the social gathering during the Republic Day long weekend.

“Because people are tired and human nature is such that we want a release we want to express ourselves, we appreciate that…”

But “the tentacles of the virus goes into every community,” he added.

Citizens speak

Guardian Media asked some citizens if they would consider going to a Zesser party now.

One man said he wouldn’t go even if it was legal as his family’s safety was more important.

Two other people said they would attend a family get together under low or entertain a small group of friends, but would not attend a Zesser party.

Dr Safeeya Mohammed said now was not the time to take such risks. She said the consequences of these behaviours (people gathering at illegal parties) can cause another wave with the more contagious Delta variant and put this country back into another lockdown, if numbers spike.

The medical doctor said it was disappointing that these Zesser parties are held with attendees not fully grasping the level of risk they are placing themselves and their loved ones in.

Since the Public Health Regulations took effect after cases of COVID-19 began to climb locally, there have been numerous busts and arrests made by police officers of people attending parties.

These parties which usually see more than ten people in attendance have no social distancing and the partygoers do not even wear masks.

The parties, people detained

While the exact number of people arrested and charged by the TTPS for being at these Zesser parties is not known, based on the busts which have been publicised, close to 500 people have been charged.

The parties:

250 people detained at a Zesser party in Caroni in November 2020

32 arrested at a Zesser party in Valsayn on August 18, 2020

100 detained at Residence Restaurant and Bar in January 2021

26 arrested at a Zesser party in Valsayn on May 31, 2020

51 arrested at a Zesser party in Valsayn on August 15, 2021

14 detained at a house party in St Augustine in September 2021

*Under regulations of the Public Health Ordinance, after 250 people were held at the Zesser party in Caroni, Griffith stated that all the attendees would be charged on the ongoing Public Health Regulations for the COVID-19 pandemic, which preclude gatherings of more than ten people and public fetes.

*Paragraph 4 (d) of the Public Heath Coronavirus Legislation states that when people turn their private property into a public area to hold public parties or public fetes they are in breach of the said regulation.

*The regulation prohibits groups from gathering in excess of ten people. Failure to do so can see people face fines of up to $50,000.

Those detained are usually charged by way of summons.