British Columbia’s Provincial Health Officer moved to calm fears about a surge in non-essential travel over the holiday weekend, saying the volume on the BC Ferries system was substantially below that of a typical long weekend and that most people were following health authorities’ advice to stick close to home.
“I don’t believe there’s a need for stepped-up enforcement or lockdowns or any of those types of measures,” Dr. Henry said Saturday during a daily briefing on COVID-19, when asked about reports of brisk ferry traffic over the past few days.
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Dr. Henry called reports of busy ferries “overblown,” saying passenger volume is significantly lower than normal and that people may have many reasons to be travelling, such as checking on a loved one. She asked people to be kind to each other.
“I think most people are doing what we need to do. They’re staying home. They’re looking after their family. They’re taking care of their neighbours,” Dr. Henry said, adding that BC Ferries is currently allowed to operate at 50 per cent of capacity and had confirmed it was serving a “fraction” of the traffic it would usually carry on a long weekend.
BC Ferries sails between the Lower Mainland and destinations including the Sunshine Coast and the southern Gulf Islands, where many people own recreational properties and which are popular long-weekend getaways.
On Friday, ferry traffic appeared to pick up, raising concerns of a surge in visitors to small communities with limited medical services.
Simon Paradis and Kara Stanley live in Halfmoon Bay on the Sunshine Coast and have been in self-isolation since mid-March.
The couple said they were worried that even a small increase in visitors to the region would result in more people in local grocery stores and gas stations and could set back local residents’ efforts to curb transmission of the virus.
“We risk setting our isolation clock back to Day 1, after the crowd comes and goes,” said Mr. Paradis, a singer-songwriter and music teacher.
If cases do arise, the region is not well-equipped to handle them, Ms. Stanley said.
“The infrastructure is not there … the bottom line is that there is one, very small hospital,” Ms. Stanley said. “If we get a lot of people coming up, and if there were an outbreak, it would really tax the limited resources that are here on the coast.”
In her daily briefings, Dr. Henry has repeatedly cautioned against non-essential travel to small and rural communities.
Sechelt Mayor Darnelda Siegers on Saturday said she been fielding calls from local residents reporting lineups in grocery stores and people showing up to their vacation homes in the region.
“Where we are seeing [increased visitors] is at the beaches, the houses that are second homes – residents are contacting me and e-mailing me constantly,” Ms. Siegers said.
Sechelt’s economy relies heavily on tourism and part-time residents, she acknowledged, but the risks posed by the pandemic mean visitors should stay away for now.
As well as ferry traffic, there have been concerns about yachts travelling to remote communities.
The operator of a marina near Bella Bella, further up the coast, said as of Saturday there had not been a noticeable increase in boat traffic from outside the region.
“We have only had local vessels visit Shearwater over the weekend so far,” Shearwater Marine Group president Tracy Macdonald said Saturday in an email, adding that the company was co-ordinating its COVID-19 response with the Heiltsuk First Nation and the Central Coast Regional District.
The Heiltsuk First Nation was among a group of First Nations and local governments that wrote to the B.C. and federal governments last week to request emergency measures to stem non-essential travel to the north and central coast region.
The province says it is working with First Nations to develop travel policies and guidelines.
BC Ferries spokeswoman Deborah Marshall on Saturday said weekend ferry traffic volume was 70 per cent to 80 per cent lower than the same long weekend last year.
Under temporary Transport Canada regulations imposed in response to COVID-19, BC Ferries vessels are allowed to carry 50 per cent of their normal passenger limit, Ms. Marshall added, meaning that a vessel usually allowed to carry 2,100 passengers and crew can now carry only 1,050 passengers and crew.
On Twitter, Tofino Mayor Josie Osborne on Friday said the “stay home” message seemed to be getting through and the vast majority of incoming traffic to Tofino was residents and essential workers.
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