British Columbia is imposing travel restrictions within the province, asking police to conduct spot checks similar to roadside drunk-driving campaigns to ensure only essential travel between the province’s five health regions. As well, people will be prevented from booking travel for vacation and recreation outside of their region, as COVID-19 stretches hospital staff to their limits.
“We’re in a serious situation,” Premier John Horgan said Monday. “There will be consequences if you are outside of your area on non-essential business.”
The new travel measures will be in place by Friday and will be effective at least until the end of the May 24 long weekend. As well, the current ban on in-room service at restaurants and bars has been extended for the same period.
Vacationers with reservations in hotels or campsites outside of their health authority over the next five weeks will be refunded their deposit, and B.C. Ferries will not book recreation vehicles on its sailings during that time.
Details of enforcement will not be released until later in the week, but the Premier sought to distance his government’s new measures from the travel restrictions imposed last week in Ontario. “It is not our objective to go into some sort of a state where we’re watching and monitoring everybody’s activity,” Mr. Horgan said.
Earlier this year, the provincial government released a legal opinion that concluded B.C. could not enforce restrictions on travel from other provinces. Mr. Horgan has called on Ottawa to enforce such measures but, in the meantime, B.C. will install new highway signs along the Alberta border, reminding travellers coming from outside the province that they should not be crossing the border for anything other than essential business.
Ontario reversed course on its sweeping new police powers Saturday, just one day after Premier Doug Ford announced the measures that triggered a swift and furious backlash. Officers in Ontario will no longer have the right to stop any pedestrian or driver to ask why they’re out, or to request their home address.
In B.C., police will be empowered under the Emergency Program Act to conduct random checks of vehicle traffic, where drivers will have to explain where they are coming from and where they are going, but the definition of essential travel has not been released yet.
Harsha Walia, executive director of the BC Civil Liberties Association, said the few details released by Mr. Horgan Monday indicate a program that is very similar to the one harshly criticized in Ontario. While the B.C. Premier said police would not be given additional authority, she said allowing officers to stop people randomly and ask them where they are going, where they’ve come from and for what purpose is beyond the scope of what police can do currently.
She questioned how the province will ensure that racialized people will not be targeted for questioning by police and she rejected Mr. Horgan’s suggestion that the program will be no different than the CounterAttack program used to randomly check for people who may be driving drunk.
“These are much wider powers than we’ve seen,” she said. “Increased policing powers are never random.”
Mr. Horgan said the new rules for booking accommodation have been worked out in co-operation with the tourism industry, but said mandatory measures will follow if compliance is weak. “If we can’t do it without an order, we’re prepared to bring an order in, but at this point, non-essential travel should be confined to local travel only.”
The new measures were announced as B.C.’s hospitals hit their limits with a rising number of COVID-19 patients, and health officials announced on Monday the youngest death in the province to date. “At a time when we are so close to getting out of what has been the worst year of our lives, to hear of the death of a two-year-old today is a graphic reminder of how we are all susceptible to the ravages of COVID-19,” Mr. Horgan told reporters.
While the province has now vaccinated about 30 per cent of its adult population, it does not expect to complete the first round of vaccinations until the end of June. The province has had strict limits on social gatherings in place since November, but Mr. Horgan said additional measures are now needed as the third wave tests the capacity of the health care system.
Health Minister Adrian Dix said some of the 20 hospitals in B.C. that provide most of the COVID-19 care have started to cancel scheduled surgeries as they redeploy medical staff to deal with more than 600 patients provincewide who are hospitalized because of the virus. That figure includes those who no longer are in isolation, and a record-breaking 138 people in critical care.
The fastest-growing cohort of COVID-19 patients in critical care are women in their 50s, and the province also announced Monday it has opened up eligibility for the AstraZeneca vaccine at pharmacies to people who are 40 years old or older.
We have a weekly Western Canada newsletter written by our B.C. and Alberta bureau chiefs, providing a comprehensive package of the news you need to know about the region and its place in the issues facing Canada. Sign up today.