Alarm raised over travellers who aren’t self-isolating

An earlier version of this story included a photo that showed a downtown residential tower. We apologize for the use of that photo. Its use was not meant to imply that people living in that building might be ignoring self-isolation orders.

Despite a federal order requiring all returning travellers to Canada to go directly home and stay there for two weeks, some are concerned not everyone is playing by the rules.

Residents returning from abroad are considered at higher risk of having contracted the virus. B.C.’s provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry has said she’s “heartened” by the relatively low number of new cases reported daily, but the return of travellers has the potential to introduce new cases into B.C. communities if self-isolation measures aren’t followed.

“This is why we’re making such a big deal about people who are coming into the country right now, because we are holding our own here right now,” Henry said Saturday. “This could take a turn for the worse in the coming week in particular.”

When Penny Chapman saw her Airbnb guests from Washington state returning with shopping bags, she believed they were violating their mandatory 14-day quarantine, but she didn’t know who to turn to with her concerns.

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The mother and daughter told Chapman they were coming to Victoria on Canadian passports to see a dying relative in hospice and assured her they would stay in her rental cottage for two weeks before leaving the property. Four days after they said they entered the country on the Coho ferry, the two packed up and left without telling Chapman.

“This woman and her daughter could stupidly go into hospice situation and, you know, they may be carrying [the virus],” Chapman said.

After contacting local police, politicians, the health authority and the Canada Border Services Agency, Chapman said she’s still unclear how the order to self-isolate for two weeks after entering the country will be enforced.

“No one here seems to be in charge,” she said. “I fell into a hole that shows that something wasn’t being taken care of.”

There is both a federal act and a provincial public health order for anyone entering B.C. from abroad to self-isolate for 14 days, which has the potential to confuse returning travellers and muddle the issue of enforcement.

The provincial health order, issued on March 17, says that returning travellers must stay home unless “to undertake essential errands,” like obtaining medication or food if it’s not possible to have the items delivered. The province has more information for residents online here and here.

The federal government’s act issued a week later uses stronger language, saying travellers without symptoms must go directly home from their arrival point “without delay,” and stay there for two weeks without leaving, unless they need to seek medical attention. Travellers are to follow the instructions provided by a screening officer or a quarantine officer upon entering the country. You can see the most recent advisories here.

Those with symptoms who are unable to get home without being exposed to others will be transported to government quarantine facilities.

Islanders returning from abroad will still be able to travel with B.C. Ferries as long as they do not have a confirmed or presumptive case of COVID-19 and do not have a fever and a cough, or a fever and difficulty breathing, said spokeswoman Deborah Marshall.

The federal act comes with hefty financial penalties and the potential for random spot checks, but how the act could be enforced remains unclear.

Henry has said that RCMP are responsible for enforcing the federal act. “It’s complicated and operationalizing it is not a simple thing.”

National RCMP spokeswoman Catherine Fortin said the RCMP is working with the Public Health Agency of Canada and law enforcement partners on enforcement details.

Henry has said the province’s approach focuses on ensuring people understand what they need to do.

“Most of the cases that we have been involved in, that have been investigated, either from public health or bylaw officers, is people not understanding and not being very clear about what exactly is expected of them,” she said. “That’s step number one, and for the most part when we do that, people are compliant. That’s the approach we recommend taking.”

Henry has also cautioned that people might not know the exact circumstances of their neighbours and that officials have heard of people receiving different messages at the airport.

Rather than encouraging people to report their neighbours, Henry has stressed the importance of supporting those returning from abroad to enable them to self-isolate appropriately.

“That may mean buying groceries for them and dropping them off, making sure they have a way to get home from the airport without having to take public transit, having frequent virtual visits. We need as a community to support people to do this,” Henry said.

People who are worried that others might be refusing to follow mandatory self-isolation after international travel can direct concerns to their local municipality, according to a B.C. government statement. Municipal bylaw officers can be dispatched to follow up on concerns by providing information to those potentially violating the order, but they do not have the power to ticket or detain anyone to force compliance.

The province’s guidance document on compliance and enforcement of public health orders says bylaw officers and other compliance officers “are not expected to monitor individual behaviour or have a role when it comes to individuals and self-isolation measures.”

Their role is to help with public education and voluntary compliance to maintain public trust and avoid law enforcement interventions.

Concerns can also be directed to Victoria police through their non-emergency line at 250-995-7654.

The department’s focus is on “education and encouragement to get people to do the right thing,” said spokesperson Cameron MacIntyre in an emailed statement.

If a person does not comply, they could be placed in isolation in a quarantine facility, MacIntyre said.

The City of Victoria has mostly received calls from residents related to groups gathered outside, rather than concerns about neighbours violating self-isolation requirements, said spokesman Bill Eisenhauer.

The District of Saanich said they’ve received a few complaints daily over the past week and their focus is on communicating with and educating the public about the public health order.

Central Saanich has appointed five existing employees as additional bylaw officers, for a total of six, to support public health orders. The municipality has received a few calls about groups outside and one about a resident who was believed to be violating mandatory self-isolation requirements, said information officer Britt Burnham in an email.

“The team did go to that home and explained what the order means. Everyone was very receptive,” she said.

Health Minister Adrian Dix has acknowledged that efforts to ensure compliance by those returning to the province from abroad needs to be stepped up at entry points across the province.

“I think we can do better. We’ve had these discussions with the federal government at airports and at border crossings to do more and they have indicated clearly that they’re going to, and I think that’s a good thing,” Dix said.

There is no excuse for anyone returning to the province from abroad not to follow the orders, he said. “The excuse of whether people were adequately contacted at the airport or not, is not an excuse for people not to comply with the order. They have to self-isolate for 14 days when they come back from outside the country,” he said.

Metchosin couple David and Norma Kirkham landed in Victoria Friday evening after weeks stuck aboard a cruise ship denied port by several countries as it travelled around South America. Their arrival in Canada included a “thorough” questioning by officials, David Kirkham said.

They faced questions about whether they had a place where they could self-isolate, whether they had private transportation from the airport to their home and if they had any flu-like symptoms, he said.

They were also questioned and had their temperatures taken before boarding their flight, chartered by the cruise company, from Florida to Toronto.

regan-elliott@timescolonist.com

— With files from Cindy Harnett

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