A travel ban that will come into force in British Columbia on Friday will not prevent visitors from other provinces from crossing the border, Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth told reporters on Wednesday.
The provincial government says it will give police the power to enforce new measures designed to curb non-essential travel, and it will install signs along the B.C.-Alberta border discouraging visitors from recreational travel. The pandemic restrictions will ban travel between the province’s health regions for the next five weeks.
“If someone does come into British Columbia, they will not be able to go to another health authority,” Mr. Farnworth said. “So they will not be able to go from the Alberta border down to Vancouver, they can go into one health authority ... And that’s it.”
He said B.C. has no clear jurisdiction to limit cross-border travel, based on a legal opinion the government obtained earlier this year, but has not released. However, Ontario and Quebec set up checkpoints this week to limit non-essential travel between the two provinces. As well, a judge in Newfoundland ruled in September that restrictions on travel, including that between provinces, was a justifiable infringement.
“The collective benefit to the population as a whole must prevail,” the judge wrote. “COVID-19 is a virulent and potentially fatal disease. In the circumstances of this case ... [the] Charter right to mobility must give way to the common good.”
British Columbia is divided into five health regions, but for the purposes of the travel ban, Mr. Farnworth said, Vancouver Coastal and Fraser will be considered a single region. The other regions are Northern, Interior and Vancouver Island.
The latest pandemic measures were announced as the faster-spreading variants of concern increase the number of COVID-19 cases in provincial hospitals to record levels. Public-health officials say travel and social interactions together are driving the spread of the variants.
British Columbia’s struggling tourism operators are expected to play a role in denying accommodation to travellers who are outside of their region for leisure, but they still waiting for details of the new measures.
Walt Judas, chief executive officer of the Tourism Industry Association of B.C., said his sector has agreed to help the province enforce the rules, on the understanding that the travel ban will end after the May 24 long weekend – at which point a majority of British Columbians are expected to have had their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.
“I think there is, by and large, an understanding of why it’s necessary, and for us, it’s really about saving the summer,” he said in an interview.
“Some businesses are already reaching out to their guests and have cancelled those bookings for the subsequent five weeks. In other cases, they are informing and allowing the guests to make the decision to cancel or not. Because what’s very difficult in all of this is the determination of essential versus non-essential travel, and who makes that call.”
This round of restrictions follows a very difficult year for the industry, as international travel for tourism and conventions have been cancelled because of the pandemic. Mr. Judas said the majority of tourism operators in B.C. are struggling with financial losses. “There are so many businesses that are either closed or on the brink of closing, and they don’t really have prospects for the remainder of the year,” he said.
On Tuesday, Tyler Beckley, owner of the Three Bars Ranch in Cranbrook, cancelled $145,000 worth of bookings for the coming five weeks, and is now unsure if he will be able to open for the summer.
He said both the federal and provincial governments have offered various aid programs, but none have been especially useful. “This pandemic has cost us a little over in $3-million in lost revenue, and combined from all the programs, I have accessed less than $30,000 in subsidies. That includes money that is to buy patio furniture, although I’m not sure how that is going to help.”
While he has cancelled bookings for the period up to May 24, he said guests are now shying away from travel even beyond that. “The ripple effects are that we are seeing cancellations from British Columbians into August now, people are scared,” he said. “We’re right on the edge of whether we open at all this year.”
Lawyer Michael Feder, a partner in McCarthy Tétrault, said the B.C. government is in murky legal terrain. “Restricting the travel of British Columbians, within British Columbia, but not the travel of Albertans to British Columbia, it’s almost impossible to understand how that makes any sense,” he said.
On Wednesday, a number of organizations, including the BC Civil Liberties Association and the First Nations Summit, issued a joint statement calling for consultations before the new restrictions are imposed. “We are deeply concerned about the overbroad and unconstitutional expansion of police powers that will disproportionately impact Black, Indigenous and racialized communities,” the open letter states.
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