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Highways, ferries busy with long-weekend travellers despite requests to stay home

The road outside Maggie O’Shaughnessy’s home on Galiano Island was busy Friday as visitors ignored pleas by health officials and island residents to stay home over the long weekend to prevent the spread of COVID-19. “It’s a small island.

The road outside Maggie O’Shaughnessy’s home on Galiano Island was busy Friday as visitors ignored pleas by health officials and island residents to stay home over the long weekend to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

“It’s a small island. It’s easy to tell who lives here and who doesn’t,” the yoga instructor said on the phone. “I’m working in my garden and I’m watching these carloads of people go by. They almost look ashamed.”

O’Shaughnessy, a former registered nurse, was worried a visitor might inadvertently spread the virus to Galiano residents, many of whom are elderly.

“We have a fantastic clinic here, but it is not equipped for a sudden increase in people,” she said. “People need to take this seriously.”

Other island residents reported the number of cars arriving by ferry and called on B.C. Ferries to help.

B.C. Ferries has already dramatically reduced sailings on all routes, and Transport Canada has ordered B.C. Ferries to reduce the maximum number of passengers on the remaining sailings by 50 per cent to enable physical distancing.

The two Spirit class vessels, the largest in the system, are usually licensed to carry 2,100 passengers and crew. The temporary maximum is 1,050 passengers and crew.

B.C. Ferries says it is complying with the Transport Canada limits. All sailings on Friday were below those limits.

The highest passenger count on a Spirit class ferry was 408 passengers on the 5 p.m. sailing from Swartz Bay to Tsawwassen. That route has only four departures a day each way, the lowest frequency since the system was started 60 years ago.

"Our traffic is down significantly, so many people are heeding the advice from the Province not to travel unless it is essential," B.C. Ferries spokeswoman Deborah Marshall said.

"This is not the time for leisure travel. Many smaller communities are asking tourists not to visit at this time.

"We ask that people respect their wishes. We don't have the authority to restrict travel.

"We are asking the public to follow advice of Dr. Bonnie Henry and other officials," she said.

In an open letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and B.C. Premier John Horgan, Nanaimo-Ladysmith Green MP Paul Manly called upon them to restrict non-essential ferry traffic and enforce it.

He said he was deeply troubled by the reports of large numbers of travellers making their way to Vancouver Island via B.C. Ferries. “It is clear that too many people are ignoring the directive from both levels of government to stay at home,” Manly wrote in his letter.

“This can no longer just be a request for people to stay home,” he wrote. “The government needs to restrict travel and enforce that restriction.”

Tofino Mayor Josie Osborne said only a “small trickle” of out-of-towners are visiting Tofino this weekend.

Tofino, Ucluelet and the region have assistance from the RCMP and Parks Canada wardens who set up an “information station” at the junction leading to the tourist towns.

Of 50 cars stopped on Thursday and Friday, most were residents or essential workers, Osborne said. “A number of cars did turn around and go back,” she said. She thought some private vacation rentals are occupied, but very few.

Beyond that there was a “handful” of people visiting second homes, as well as some just taking a drive from Victoria or Duncan, for example, said Osborne. “Most reports are it’s very quiet,” she said.

Osborne praised hotels, motels, resorts and campgrounds for closing. “We’ve had such amazing support from the accommodation industry. It’s been so hard for them to do, but they are 100 per cent behind what we’re trying to do on the coast in terms of protecting vulnerable people and preserving all of our health care resources for the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Port McNeill Mayor Gaby Wickstrom said her town and others are concerned not only for their residents, but also for tourists being infected or spreading the virus.

“A good friend of mine saw a vanload of six people go into our local grocery store, IGA, and they had all kinds of camping equipment on top of their van,” she said. “And we’ve seen other out-of-town plates.”

Last weekend, regional district staff were called to shut down campsites that had been occupied by groups of people.

Wickstrom said the town, which relies on tourism, walks a delicate balance in telling people to stay away during the pandemic. “It’s an odd dance we are doing, right now,” she said. “We are trying to be firm, but diplomatic, with our messaging.”

At the Tree House Cafe on Purvis Lane, Salt Spring Island, Kechura Davidson said she had seen mostly locals in the café on Friday, but heard reports of campers stocking up at the grocery store.

“We’ll see what the weekend brings,” Davidson said. “Hopefully, it’s not tourists.”

B.C. Parks has closed all provincial parks after physical-distancing measures in the wilderness failed.

“We tried to provide safe space for people to get some exercise and fresh air in our beautiful parks, but it has proven too challenging to maintain safe distance between visitors,” B.C. Environment Minister George Heyman said.

B.C. Parks has extended the ban on all camping in provincial parks until May 31.

— with files by Tiffany Crawford

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