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Dr. Bonnie Henry at a press conference at Legislature in Victoria, B.C., on March 1, 2021.

CHAD HIPOLITO/The Canadian Press

British Columbia’s top doctor is trying to clamp down on the spread of COVID-19 variants with a new public-health order giving local authorities the power to temporarily close businesses when three or more employees are confirmed to have contracted the virus at work.

At a pandemic briefing that announced a daily record of 1,293 new B.C. cases, Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said public-health authority staff will be able to close these businesses for 10 days or longer, with the help of WorkSafeBC inspectors who will execute the temporary closings. The new order does not apply to schools or other essential workplaces such as police stations, hospitals and fire halls, Dr. Henry said Thursday.

She said this new tactic will offer an alternative to the “blunt tool of just closing everything” in an industry when workplace transmission has persisted, noting the recent outlawing of indoor dining at restaurants and bars last week. At larger work sites, a closing may be restricted to one area, Dr. Henry said, using the example of a construction site where one group of trades people might be kept from working while others continue.

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Any workplace that is closed under the order will be listed publicly and have the date of its reopening posted, she added.

“This is just an ongoing part of our program to help control the outbreaks and a more targeted approach to workplaces across the province to help us make sure that we are keeping things functioning as safely as possible,” Dr. Henry said. “They are one of the most common sources of transmission in our province and it is widely across many sectors.”

Over the weekend, B.C. Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth warned businesses that defying public-health orders will bring stiffer consequences after two Vancouver restaurants were shut down for proudly flouting the ban on indoor dining.

Ian Tostenson, president of the B.C. Restaurant and Foodservices Association, said Thursday that Dr. Henry’s new order is prudent, but he hopes that any potential closings are reviewed by senior staff at the local health authority.

“There’s a general intent to keep businesses open when they’re safe,” said Mr. Tostenson, who has long lobbied for the restaurant industry.

Still, he said, restaurants are not the problem. He said he and other representatives from his industry met Thursday with staff from Vancouver Coastal Health and were told that local data show the spike in new cases is largely being driven by people gathering in private and then by getting the novel coronavirus at work.

“Restaurants are less than 1 per cent,” he said of the case transmission data he was shown.

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Dr. Henry said at Thursday’s briefing that people are driving rising rates of infections by socializing with people outside their households, which is then amplifying the workplace transmissions.

The province has seen daily infections consistently top the 1,000 mark in the past week, with Dr. Henry stating Thursday that B.C. is changing how it screens variants of concern cases given that the majority of new cases are assumed to be these new forms of the virus.

Dr. Henry said two more people have died from the virus, with the death toll in B.C. now at 1,493. She added that 995,001 vaccine doses have been delivered across British Columbia and that people 65 and over are now eligible to get an appointment for their shot.

With a report from The Canadian Press

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