While most people stayed home to comply with public health orders, hundreds of people rang in the new year with a dance party outside the Vancouver Art Gallery. Vancouver police officers watched for several hours as the gathering unfolded, but appeared to take no action against anyone for violating the orders related to gatherings and events.

Co-organized by a group called Hugs Over Masks, the dance party featured several large event tents, a sound system with a DJ booth and even portable toilets.

Set up began in the late afternoon and the illegal gathering officially began at 8 p.m., continuing until after midnight and including a traditional New Year’s Eve countdown.

“This is a rally, this is a protest and this is a celebration at the same time of our rights and freedoms,” said Vadislav Sobolev, founder of Hugs Over Masks, and one of the organizers of the dance party. “Obviously, as this is New Year’s Eve, we are creating a theme around that. The whole idea is for people to come together and celebrate the good that we have going on in this country, in our humanity, and really take a stand for their freedoms.”

Sobolev believes the COVID-19 pandemic is a hoax and his group encourages people to not wear masks or follow physical distancing protocols.

He has organized and participated in a number of weekly rallies and marches in downtown Vancouver and says police have never taken any enforcement action against him, despite the fact he wants to be fined for organizing the events in violation of public health orders.

“For us, it’s actually something that we welcome, because we want to go to court with those fines on the basis that these fines are completely unjustified,” said Sobolev.

Vancouver police confirm they were made aware of the event, which organizers called a protest, in advance.

“Vancouver police officers exercise their discretion in the enforcement of public health orders. They must weigh a citizen’s right to peacefully protest with the current potential harm of gatherings,” the Vancouver Police Department said in a statement.

“Mass arrests are not possible or desirable. Ticketing and arrests could escalate an already passionate situation, and when there are larger groups of people, the risk of injury to both protestors and police officers rises.”

The right to protest is covered under Section 2 the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, but so is the right to religious freedom, and that hasn’t stopped authorities in Chilliwack from levelling nearly $20,000 in fines against a handful of churches for failing to comply with health orders.

Section 1 of the Charter specifically states that the rights enshrined in the document are not absolute and can be subject to reasonable limits.

“In particular, in the time of a pandemic where we have these public health orders that are in place for a reason, which is to protect our greater community, we have to understand there are going to be greater limitations on individual rights and liberties during these times,” said criminal lawyer Sarah Leamon in an interview with CTV News.

The Facebook event page for the dance party named several people as hosts, including Danielle Kinchella-Pistilli.

She declined to be interviewed by CTV News, but did address the crowd over the sound system.

“We need to give a big thank you to the VPD for all of their support and for standing on the right side of history with us,” she said.

When the event started, there was no visible police presence, but after a few hours, about 10 officers from the VPD’s public safety unit looked on from a distance as the dance party grew.