Good morning. Wendy Cox in Vancouver this morning.
Premier Jason Kenney’s reluctance to impose mask mandates and his opposition to mandatory vaccination policies have placed him squarely at odds with some medical professionals in his province, and also with some of his fellow premiers.
Earlier this week, his clear distaste for vaccine mandates collided with a decision by the owners of the Calgary Flames and Stampeders to require all employees and fans attending events at their facilities to be fully immunized against the coronavirus.
Last month, Mr. Kenney said the province will not “facilitate” vaccine passports and would “discourage businesses” from asking people for their immunization status, which he believes would violate Alberta’s health-privacy laws.
The Kenney government’s approach to such measures has been consistent and predictable.
British Columbia’s approach has been less so.
Last year, British Columbia was one of the last provinces to require – not just recommend – that people wear masks inside public places. The school year began without masks being mandatory, even when they were required in schools in Calgary and Edmonton.
On July 1, B.C. joined other Western provinces by removing its mask mandate.
But this week, as the Delta variant drives case counts in Western Canada skyward, B.C.’s Provincial Public Health Officer, Bonnie Henry, acted to tighten things up again. British Columbians will now have to wear masks indoors in public spaces.
On Monday, Dr. Henry announced that anyone wanting to get into a movie theatre, restaurant, concert, pub, or sporting event, among other places, will have to show proof of vaccination – something the government is calling a vaccine card. She explained that the requirement is being imposed on activities that are discretionary and non-essential. The rules are strict: the only exemptions are for children under the age of 12, for whom vaccines are not yet available. Even people with medical impediments to getting vaccinated will not be exempt from the rules. As a result, they will not be able to participate in some of life’s simpler pleasures.
“This is a temporary measure that is getting us through a risky period, where we know that people who are unvaccinated are at greater risk of both contracting and spreading this virus,” Dr. Henry said in explanation.
“If there are those rare people who have a medical reason why they can’t be immunized, these are discretionary events that we’re talking about.”
But B.C. has taken a far less aggressive approach for activities deemed essential, such as going to school. In fact, the policies outlined Tuesday for back-to-school are less stringent than in other provinces.
Dr. Henry announced that the re-imposed mask mandate will apply in schools and post-secondary institutions, but only for Grades 4 and up. Those in Kindergarten to Grade 3 will be urged to wear masks, but they will not be mandatory. In Ontario, masks are mandatory starting in Grade 1. Alberta has left it up to individual school boards, so some are requiring masks and some aren’t.
Teachers will not be required to be vaccinated at British Columbia’s elementary and high schools. Ontario has previously said it is finalizing a COVID-19 vaccination plan for school staff that would require those who aren’t vaccinated to get tested for the virus on a regular basis. Manitoba announced Tuesday that teachers and other front-line workers will need to be fully vaccinated by Halloween or be subjected to regular testing.
Dr. Henry said Tuesday that proof of vaccination will not be required for post-secondary students attending lectures, and that universities cannot independently require it. Students living in residence, however, are required to be vaccinated. Universities throughout Ontario, Saskatchewan and Alberta are requiring proof of vaccination or regular testing.
After a confusing exchange with Advanced Education Minister Anne Kang at Tuesday’s news conference, Dr. Henry made it clear the only extra requirement post-secondary institutions could impose is mandatory vaccinations for staff and faculty.
“The short answer is for students, no. We have a public health policy; we have measures in place. Where we think it is important for students is in the communal living settings. So that’s the baseline we have put in place. Whether post-secondary institutions want to have a policy around faculty and staff, as an employer, that is where they have some leeway to do that on their own with advice from public health.”
Dr. Henry said the province had learned from its experience last year with students in Kindergarten through Grade 1 that classrooms are “the least of the risky settings, so there are other measures in place.” She noted masking and assigned seating.
But Lynne Marks, a history professor and president of the University of Victoria’s faculty association, said Dr. Henry and the province should not be basing post-secondary rules on lessons learned earlier in the pandemic from elementary and high schools, which were only allowed to have up to two dozen students in any given class.
“It reflects a dramatic lack of understanding as to how post-secondary works,” she said. “In universities like UVic, UBC and SFU we’re talking about 300 students or more in one class and then going off to another class and a third class.”
That presents serious risks to those in classrooms, even if only a minority are unvaccinated and everyone is masked, Ms. Marks said. She added that professors have voiced concerns that they could pass the virus on to their unvaccinated children under 12.
One UBC professor on Twitter joked that perhaps he’d move his classes to a bar, where vaccinations will be required.
This is the weekly Western Canada newsletter written by B.C. Editor Wendy Cox and Alberta Bureau Chief James Keller. If you’re reading this on the web, or it was forwarded to you from someone else, you can sign up for it and all Globe newsletters here.