British Columbia’s reopening begins this week, and with the easing of pandemic restrictions comes new expectations for residents and businesses to comply with myriad safety measures.
Restaurant operators are being asked to collect contact information from patrons, magazine racks will disappear from waiting rooms, elevator access will be curtailed, plexiglass barriers will separate workspaces, and customers can expect to be turned away if they have a sniffle or cough.
The changes are being made as the B.C. Centre for Disease Control declares the risk of COVID-19 in the province to be the lowest it has been since early March.
The province’s rate of new cases – just two were reported on Tuesday – and the number of people dying from COVID-19 have flattened. And for weeks now, B.C. has been able to trace the source of almost every new COVID-19 case – a critical development as restaurants, pubs, hair salons and schools begin to reopen their doors.
British Columbia’s shutdown was less rigid than some other provinces. It did not shut down construction and many retail stores were permitted to stay open, while the children of essential services workers could still attend school. But the first stage of the restart plan has put the onus on businesses and facilities, such as gyms, to devise plans to meet new safety orders from the Provincial Health Officer.
For many smaller restaurants, the layout or overall size just don’t make economic sense, given the physical-distancing rules.
Edward Geekiyanage said his Pink Peppercorn Seafood House in East Vancouver could realistically hold four tables if it had opened Tuesday, when the new rules took effect. As long as different guests must dine at least two metres apart, he will not be reopening his 75-seat restaurant on the busy Kingsway thoroughfare. Instead, he will continue to cook, package and sell take-out lunch and dinner options with the help of his wife and two children.
“My kids are so good,” said Mr. Geekiyanage, a long-time restaurateur who had to lay off eight staff members in mid-March. “Because I’m the person who pays for their tuition fees and everything, so [they see] daddy is in trouble and they come and help me out.”
Ian Tostenson, president and chief executive of the B.C. Restaurant and Foodservices Association, estimates about 10 per cent of all restaurants opened for dining-in on Tuesday. He predicted that just 60 per cent of all establishments would open up by the end of the month.
Self-screening is a critical piece of B.C.'s reopening plan. Individuals are required to stay home if they develop symptoms of a cold, flu or COVID-19 – or if they live with someone who is confirmed or suspected of COVID-19. While schools reopen on a voluntary basis in June, students will be sent home if they appear to be ill.
In a novel new measure, operators of restaurants, cafés and bars are expected to collect contact information for one member of every party of patrons for 30 days, in the event there is a need for contact tracing by public health officials. Anyone who is contacted by their regional health authority’s public health team because they have been in contact with a confirmed case – meaning they have been or could have been exposed to the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 – are required to self-isolate.
Bonnie Henry, B.C.'s Provincial Health Officer, said the provincial workers’ safety watchdog, as well as local health authorities, have the ability to investigate customer or employee complaints about a business not following the "practical, sensible and safe“ guidelines aimed at stopping another wave of infections.
“Our first line of action is not to fine people or shut them down, it is to ensure that they are taking the necessary actions that we need to keep people safe,” Dr. Henry said Tuesday at her daily briefing. “It’s not something we’ve done before, so we need to make sure everyone is being thoughtful about it.”
The province expects to move to the next phase of reopening, including fewer restrictions for domestic travel, in the summer, if the rate of transmission remains low.
Still, health officials are cautiously optimistic about B.C.'s progress against the disease.
Since the province recorded its first COVID-19 case in January, the BCCDC has tracked the majority of cases to either international travel or to community cases and clusters where the point of transmission is known. That information allows health officials to respond to exposures quickly to control outbreaks.
“At this point, we’re in a very reassuring place. We have a high level of control of transmission in British Columbia,” said Reka Gustafson, Deputy Provincial Health Officer and vice-president for public health at the Provincial Health Services Authority.
“The risk is about as low as it can get in British Columbia right now.”
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