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opinion

Police officers patrol the Granville Entertainment District in Vancouver, on Aug. 22, 2020.DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

Admit it. Here in B.C., most of us crowed about our ability to flatten the COVID-19 curve under the guidance of our Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry, whose measured approach has been to explain the rationale behind steps she wants us to take to keep disease numbers low and ever so gently chide those not following the rules.

We were adults being treated like adults, and for a while the approach worked.

But now COVID-19 cases in British Columbia are on a frightening upswing just as schools are about to reopen, adding another level of risk. We now have the highest number of active cases since the pandemic began. The resurgence has emerged primarily among young adults who have grown weary of physical distancing.

This raises questions about whether B.C.‘s soft approach to pandemic rule enforcement was the right way to go. Would tougher enforcement from the get-go have made people less likely to break the rules?

There is no sure-fire way to run a public-health campaign that will resonate with an entire population, said Steven Taylor, a University of British Columbia psychiatry professor and author of a book called The Psychology of Pandemics: Preparing for the Next Global Outbreak of Infectious Disease. Dr. Henry’s “do the right thing” approach, which appealed to our altruistic natures, worked well when fear of the pandemic was at its peak.

But as the number of deaths fell, it was inevitable the fear would subside, and as with any public-health campaign, message fatigue set in. Prof. Taylor said he believes the gentle approach taken by Dr. Henry and provincial Health Minister Adrian Dix was a calculated decision.

To his ear, the public-health messages sounded as though they were carefully scripted by thoughtful, well-informed people. But given the rising case numbers, “I wouldn’t be surprised if the tone does change,” Prof. Taylor said. On Thursday, Mr. Dix stuck to his good-cop demeanour and encouraged everyone to enjoy the weekend safely.

The tone grew a lot sterner on Friday with an announcement from B.C.‘s enforcer, Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth, who said organizers of large parties or events that defy public-health orders will now be penalized. Mr. Farnworth said event organizers or hosts will be fined $2,000 fines where attendance exceeds the 50-person limit. Owners and hosts of vacation rental properties that allow more than five guests will also be ticketed.

Fines can be issued by a wide range of enforcement personnel, from police and city bylaw officers to liquor inspectors and conservation officers. Vancouver residents are encouraged to call 311 or report concerns using the city’s VanConnect mobile app. Those who promote or attend non-compliant events, break physical distancing rules in bars or restaurants, or fail to leave when asked to do so can now be fined $200, Mr. Farnworth added.

Choosing the right message, especially when trying to get through to young people, isn’t easy, Prof. Taylor said, pointing to Premier John Horgan’s recent appeal to Vancouver-born film stars Ryan Reynolds and Seth Rogan to help persuade young people to stop partying. While celebrities can sometimes help sway young people, the answers that came back from the two actors were so jokey, they likely didn’t convey the seriousness of the situation to their target audience.

Mr. Farnworth made it clear he was not joking. He publicly denounced the “selfish people” who are willing to jeopardize public health for the sake of a good time. The threat of a $2,000 fine won’t shut down all the parties. Where there is a will, there’s a way. But telegraphing that B.C. is getting more serious about enforcement may encourage more people to report transgressions and prompt law enforcement officials to write the tickets.

It’s sad it had to come to this. The change in tone indicates just how afraid the government is about our rising COVID-19 case numbers. As we have seen just across the border in Washington State, it doesn’t take long for a slight increase to snowball. Left unchecked, B.C. will be forced, once again, to shut down entire business sectors. And that would be an economic disaster our province simply can’t afford.

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