Pandemic restrictions put in place last month amid surging COVID-19 cases have been extended to Feb. 16 as hospitalizations increase, although gyms and exercise facilities will be allowed to reopen with capacity and spacing limits.
The province reported 1,975 new COVID-19 cases Tuesday for a total of 37,167 active cases in the province. Of those, 854 were in hospital, including 112 in intensive care.
Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said she’s taking the “cautious step” of allowing gyms and fitness centres to reopen, provided customers continue to prove their vaccination status with the B.C. Vaccine Card.
The new guidelines, which go into effect Thursday, include individual and group fitness activities and were developed in consultation with the Fitness Industry Council of Canada. Space requirements of 2.5 by 2.5 metres apply to everyone working out, whether in a group or alone. Masks are encouraged during exercise and otherwise required.
Gyms in Greater Victoria were elated about Tuesday’s news and many had reopening plans underway.
“This is huge for us,” said Blake MacDonald, president of Orangetheory Fitness Canada, which has two locations in Greater Victoria and outlets around the province. “The pandemic has been extremely tough on our industry and especially on our brand.”
MacDonald said the last round of restrictions on the back of lockdowns and restrictions over the last two years was a “death punch” for some of his competitors and could have been for some Orangetheory franchisees had it gone on much longer.
January and February are the key months in the fitness business, given New Year’s resolutions are still fresh, said MacDonald, who expects Orangetheory locations could be open as early as Thursday.
“We have to recall staff, we have to reorient staff and in some cases staff don’t come back,” he said. “It’s definitely a challenge to get everything ramped back up again.”
Jason Sheridan, chief operating officer at GoodLife Fitness, said the company is grateful to the province for affirming the “crucial role” gyms play in supporting mental health amid the pandemic.
Tina Derix, co-owner of Forge Training in downtown Victoria, said the company was preparing its indoor studio to reopen starting Thursday, although an outside workout space will remain open Wednesday to accommodate gym members willing to brave the elements.
Derix said the indoor capacity restrictions will mean a bit more work to get set up. “But it’s reasonable, especially being able to still run group fitness classes, albeit at reduced capacity,” she said.
The City of Victoria, District of Saanich and the University of Victoria said their recreation facilities could be open within a day of restrictions being relaxed. The YM/YWCA of Vancouver Island pledged to have a response posted on its website about when members could expect its facilities to reopen.
Restrictions that closed bars, limited theatres and sports venues to 50 per cent capacity, limited movement and table capacity in restaurants and cancelled sports tournaments remain in place, however.
As well, the B.C. Vaccine Card, introduced in August, will continue to be required for patrons of non-essential businesses and events past Jan. 31, said Henry. B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix said the card has been downloaded by four million people in the province.
Henry said the goal of restrictions is to stem infections and serious illness, protecting the health-care system from being overwhelmed.
The provincial health officer urged British Columbians to seek credible sources of information on vaccines, get boosters and not to drop their guard on pandemic restrictions and guidelines, even if they think infection is inevitable.
While most people with the Omicron variant don’t end up in hospital, many do get seriously ill, Henry said. Some who don’t end up in hospital remain sick for months with what’s called long COVID.
The data for Omicron show about one in 10 people will have symptoms that last for 12 weeks or longer, said Henry. “That’s a long time to be seriously ill.”
As well, the relatively healthy who become infected can pass it on to vulnerable populations, she said. There were 53 B.C. health-care facilities with outbreaks on Tuesday, 16 of which were in Island Health.
Henry reiterated that anyone off work or school, childcare or preschool with COVID-19 does not need a doctor’s note to return. If someone has a positive rapid test, there’s no need for a PCR test to confirm it.
Dix said the province has received 4.8 million rapid-test kits and deployed 3.4 million, including 816,000 for personal use. Rapid tests are being used for visitors in long-term care homes, K-12 schools, health care workers and business organizations.
If a rapid test is recommended through the B.C. Centre for Disease Control website, people can select a pick-up site or PCR sample collection site. Appointments are required.
Island Health says if testing is recommended, call 1-844-901-8442 and the call centre will call you back to determine next steps. If you require testing, you will be provided a link and passcode to book a time to pick up an at-home test kit from one of the testing sites.
Rapid antigen pick-up sites in the capital region include: Victoria Conference Centre, Ogden Point, Saanich Peninsula Health Unit, and the Juan de Fuca Seniors Centre. PCR sample test sites include: Quadra Village, 950 Kings Road, the ICBC Claim Centre, Saanich Peninsula Health Unit and Juan de Fuca Seniors Centre.
With regard to Health Canada’s approval of an anti-viral pill treatment for COVID, Henry said B.C. will receive a “limited supply” of about 4,000 doses.
The anti-viral must be started within five days of the start of symptoms to blunt their severity and will be earmarked for people with mild to moderate COVID-19 and at the highest risk of ending up in hospital — for example, people over age 70, those extremely vulnerable and immune-compromised, and younger people with medical conditions who aren’t vaccinated. “It’s not going to change the trajectory of our pandemic right now but it is … another tool to help those people who do get sick who are more risk of ending up in hospital,” Henry said.
Two additional COVID-19 vaccines with “promising clinical trials” are under review by Health Canada — one made using a protein in tobacco plants, she said.
Dix said 1.5 million British Columbians over age 18, or 37 per cent, have received booster shots so far.