British Columbia is imposing the strictest COVID-19 restrictions the province has seen since the beginning of pandemic in an effort to address record-breaking case counts driven by more transmissible coronavirus variants.
For three weeks beginning Tuesday, dine-in service at bars and restaurants, indoor adult group fitness activities, and worship services – which just days ago were permitted to reopen in a limited capacity – are all prohibited, Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry said Monday.
The Whistler-Blackcomb ski resort, which has seen clusters of cases, particularly among staff who live and socialize in close quarters, is also ordered closed.
Workers are “strongly encouraged” to work from home where possible, and public-health guidance for schools has been updated to “support and encourage” students in Grade 4 and up to wear masks.
The province recorded 2,518 new cases over the weekend, which included a new daily record of 936 cases from Friday to Saturday, and 329 new cases involving variants of concern.
Dr. Henry acknowledged that the variants are driving the increase. Of 2,233 confirmed variant cases, 1,915 are the B.1.1.7 variant most commonly associated with the United Kingdom, she said. But confirmed cases of the P.1 variant commonly associated with Brazil increased to 270 on Monday, up from 13 on March 9. There are currently 413 confirmed active variant cases in B.C.
The laboratory at St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver, which screens samples from most of the Vancouver Coastal Health region, is now detecting the P.1 variant more commonly than the others. Emerging research has linked it to increased transmissibility and reinfection.
Dr. Henry said an initial cluster of P.1 cases in the Vancouver Coastal Health region earlier in the month was thought to be contained, but now there are “concerning” clusters in the interior, and in Whistler, as well.
“This is one of the reasons why we’ve put these indoor restrictions right now,” she said. “The increased transmissibility of these variants means that any lapse in our protection measures in an indoor setting makes it very risky.”
Ian Tostenson, president and chief executive of the BC Restaurant and Foodservices Association, said he is “obviously disappointed” in the decision, but it is clear that something had to be done to address climbing case counts.
B.C. restaurants will still be able to offer take-out, delivery and seated service on patios, but Mr. Tostenson estimated that that will translate to roughly 60 per cent of business lost.
“It’s going to be a tough three weeks and, I think, for some it might be the last three weeks,” Mr. Tostenson said. “If it goes on beyond three weeks, it’s going to be really tough for a lot of smaller restaurants to even contemplate staying open.”
Shaun Layton, owner of Como Taparia in Vancouver’s Mount Pleasant neighbourhood, said he’ll be closing the restaurant indefinitely.
“What the B.C. government is doing, to me, is a Band-Aid approach. And it looks good on paper. But I don’t think they understand what that means for actual businesses,” Mr. Layton said.
He said his restaurant, which can seat three tables outdoors, can’t compete with large chain establishments with much more space.
“What is patio doing for actual small restaurants?” he said “Nothing. It’s embarrassing.”
Michelle Travis, a spokesperson for Unite Here Local 40, which represents B.C. hospitality workers, said most workers the union represents haven’t been recalled to work because of ongoing restrictions.
“For the small number of food and beverage workers who are back, the latest restrictions are yet another setback to stability for struggling hospitality workers,” she said.
Derrick Hamre, lead pastor for Christian Life Assembly in Langley, B.C., similarly said he is disappointed in the decision but that his church will obey the new health orders.
“Easter is the hallmark of Christianity. We were hoping that in-person gatherings were the beginning of something very beneficial and cathartic for our people and community. We are deeply concerned for the spiritual, emotional and mental health of our people,” Mr. Hamre said.
“However, we are equally concerned for the weak and vulnerable.”
Alberta and Saskatchewan have also seen sharp increases in COVID-19 infections and variants in recent weeks.
Alberta delayed the latest phase of its reopening plans last week in the face of increasing infections and hospital admissions. The province set benchmarks for its reopening plan that largely focused on the number of people in hospital.
While Alberta met the target to move into the next phase, which would have eased restrictions in a wide range of areas including allowing indoor gatherings, hospital admissions had been increasing and the recent spike in infections is expected to keep pushing those numbers up.
The province’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, Deena Hinshaw, said she’ll be watching the data carefully before determining whether new restrictions are needed. She said it appears that many people are less likely to follow public-health orders
“The real question is what kinds of additional measures would be the most effective to help remind all of us that we’re not through this yet and that we don’t have enough immunizations offered to our population to be able to reduce the risk of a wave of cases becoming a wave of admissions in acute care,” Dr. Hinshaw said on Monday.
The Saskatchewan government shut down in-person dining in Regina and imposed a number of other public-health measures after a rapid surge in new infections, largely driven by the variants. The province has the highest infection rates in the country and infections have increased by more than 50 per cent in less than two weeks.
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