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Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry provides an update on the COVID-19 pandemic in the province during a press conference in the press theatre at Legislature in Victoria, B.C., on Thursday, October 22, 2020.The Canadian Press

At the start of the pandemic, British Columbia was something of an island among the country’s biggest provinces. It stood apart from the surging coronavirus elsewhere in Canada.

By the end of March, as the virus was ramping up in Ontario and Quebec, new cases in B.C. had already peaked, and at a low level. In late May, B.C. had fewer than 10 cases a day. Quebec at the time was recording 540 a day and Ontario 340. B.C. Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry was lionized. The economy reopened. In June, some children were back in school.

That first-round victory forged a sense of exceptionalism. But the confidence has shattered. B.C. is no longer an island.

Case numbers started to slowly tick higher in August. Since Thanksgiving, they have surged. While per-capita infections are higher in Alberta, Manitoba and Quebec, B.C.'s case count is worse than Ontario’s. Facing this new reality, the province’s pandemic leadership last Saturday held a rare weekend news conference. Dr. Henry outlined the darkening picture and issued an array of tough new orders – but failed to make the rules as clear as they should be.

The orders are smart. The lack of clarity is a problem.

For two weeks through Nov. 23, in the Vancouver Coastal and Fraser Health regions, all social gatherings in homes, outdoors or in restaurants are banned, including funeral and wedding receptions. Outside of one’s household, social contacts are supposed to be cut to zero. It’s an aggressive order that aims to contain the virus while keeping the core of the province’s economy out of an induced coma.

Communication of the plan was muddled. Even Vancouver Coastal Health was confused. On Sunday afternoon, it tweeted that outdoor gatherings were okay. By Sunday night, after being bombarded with questions, it corrected itself.

B.C. toes a narrow line. Restaurants and bars are allowed to stay open, but you can’t meet friends there. Gyms are open, but fitness classes and sports such as hockey are shuttered. Travel in and out of the affected region is supposed to be for essential reasons only – but that’s merely recommended, not ordered.

The attempted surgical approach deserves credit but it risks stoking confusion. People can be forgiven for asking what exactly is and is not allowed. A stop sign at a street corner is a clear rule. A stop sign with an asterisk, fine print underneath and a label reading “recommended” is not.

Dr. Henry has resisted absolute orders. Masks are an example. In late October, she said “the expectation” was that people would wear masks in public indoor spaces. That came two months after masks were made mandatory on Vancouver-area public transit. Masks may be Dr. Henry’s expectation, but RCMP and Vancouver Police can opt out if they feel like it. At the government ICBC insurance office in downtown Vancouver, there is no sign about masks at the door and buried on its website it says masks are not mandatory but “feel free to wear one if you wish.”

If you wish! We all wish a lot of things these days. Wearing a mask should not be optional. In Ontario, there’s no equivocation. It is “must,” not “it sure would be swell if you did.”

New policies have been hustled together as the second wave batters much of the country, and some confusion is common. Ontario has a new five-tier system that is encouraging reopening as cases spike, which threatens to make things worse. In Alberta, Premier Jason Kenney urges “personal responsibility.” Social gatherings in homes in Calgary, Edmonton and other hot spots are not recommended, yet 15 people are permitted to get together. The problem with personal responsibility is adherence varies. The evidence is that about 10 per cent of people sick with symptoms in Edmonton and Calgary have gone to work, stores or a social gathering.

All governments want to avoid the lockdowns of the spring, and rightly so. That drives B.C.'s strategy. But in the event of failure, lockdowns loom. Look at Europe. Or Manitoba. Canada’s worst-hit province is effectively going into lockdown starting Thursday.

Premier John Horgan on Monday called B.C.'s situation “dangerous.” He evoked B.C.'s previous “envied position” and the collective effort it’ll take to win it back. Notwithstanding a confused rollout, B.C.'s order for a two-week shutdown of social lives is prudent. It stands a good chance of working if, as Mr. Horgan and Dr. Henry are once more betting, British Columbians live up to their duty.

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