B.C. brings in mask order, province-wide restrictions on travel, gatherings

Restrictions on non-essential travel, social gatherings, and high-intensity indoor fitness classes were extended province-wide on Thursday, and masks will be mandatory for indoor public settings and workplaces.

The new rules mean no social gatherings of any size with anyone other than your immediate household, said provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry. Those who live alone are prohibited from hosting gatherings, but can see one or two people from their core bubble.

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The restrictions, initially imposed only in the Fraser and Vancouver Coastal health regions, are in place across the province as COVID-19 cases spike.

There were 538 new cases of COVID-19 in B.C. on Thursday, including 12 in Island Health. That brings the number of active cases in the province to 6,929, of whom 217 are in hospital, including 59 in intensive care. There was one additional death.

The new rules are in place until at least midnight on Dec. 7, said Henry. Two weeks is one incubation period, where the virus can be transmitted and symptoms can appear in the next person.

“We really need to take action now across the province,” said Henry. “Four weeks ago, we had about 175 cases a day and I was anxious then. Yesterday we had over 700 people in our province affected. And we know that our hospitals are getting stretched. Our ICU capacity is getting stretched, our communities are suffering.”

An order allowing gatherings of up to 50 people is suspended. ­Weddings, baptisms and funerals can continue, but with no receptions and only 10 people including the officiant.

“This is one of those things we do very reluctantly,” said Henry, who talked to faith leaders this week. “We have unfortunately seen transmission happen in a number of faith communities, in churches and in gurdwaras, in temples.”

The Anglican Diocese of British Columbia directed all Anglican churches in the region to comply with Henry’s order effective ­immediately. “Obviously, such an order is disappointing to our parishioners and clergy,” Dean Ansley Tucker, diocesan administrator and rector of Christ Church Cathedral, said in a letter to clergy.

“This is particularly so as we begin to think about Advent and Christmas. But, we know the critical situation facing our province and the rest of Canada, and the important role we play in helping to flatten the curve of COVID-19 in our province.”

The order does not apply to schools, which will continue operating, or to meetings for groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous, and for after-school and childcare programs, and instruction programs.

Henry said it’s OK to go for a walk outside with a friend, for grandparents to pick up the kids at school or to have a cleaner or a construction worker come to your house, as long as safety precautions are taken.

The new rules come after orders in Fraser and Vancouver Coastal health regions failed to bring down rapidly increasing cases of COVID-19, said Henry. At the same time, there has been a surge of cases in other parts of B.C., including Vancouver Island, which saw its first outbreak in a long-term care facility.

The exponential increase in cases has challenged contact tracers who try to link positive cases to a known case or cluster. “That is the area that I’m most concerned about,” said Henry.

While “high risk” high-intensity fitness activities such as spin classes, hot yoga and interval training have been ordered to stop, other indoor group fitness activities can continue, but must adhere to updated COVID safety guidelines.

The province has made masks mandatory in some situations. A notice on the provincial government website says masks must be worn in all public indoor settings and workplaces. There is an exemption for people who can’t put on or remove a mask by themselves.

“A customer can be refused entry or service if they do not wear a mask,” the notice says.

Public indoor places where masks must be worn include stores, shopping malls, community centres, recreation centres, and restaurants and bars when not seated at a table. Masks must also be worn in indoor workplaces, in shared work areas and in situations where physical distancing is difficult. Workplace areas where masks must be worn include elevators, kitchens, hallways, customer counters and break rooms.

Henry said masks aren’t required for someone at a desk at work, or working behind a service counter where there is a Plexiglas barrier, “unless there are others back there with you.”

More details on the mandatory mask order will be released over the next week, said Henry. It will include fines and allow store operators to call police to deal with non-compliance.

All businesses will be required to conduct daily screening of all on-site workers, and inspection of all businesses will be increased.

Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps said the new measures will have minimal impact on city operations, since masks are already mandatory inside city buildings and staff have been working from home on a rotating basis.

She’s more worried, she said, about the effects on struggling downtown businesses and she urged people to continue supporting restaurants and other establishments while still obeying Henry’s orders.

“Let’s rally to fight the pandemic and let’s rally to support our local businesses at the same time,” she said. “We can do both of those things. We just have to do them smartly and following the orders.”

The vast majority of businesses are doing a great job, said Henry. Public health officials are not seeing transmission in retail spaces such as grocery stores, pharmacies, restaurants and hair salons, but in the social interactions people are having before, during and after work or other events, she said.

Henry is asking employers to temporarily suspend efforts to get workers back into offices, and to support working at home, where possible, until at least the new year.

The B.C. Public Service Agency said staff who were asked to begin returning to the workplace on a part-time basis are no longer expected to do so.

After hearing about the new orders, Victoria group Ragged Glory, a Neil Young tribute, cancelled its Thursday night performance at Hermann’s Jazz Club, though the restrictions were not scheduled to come into effect until hours after the band’s performance would have wrapped up. “In the spirit of trying to end this [pandemic] now, it would not have been a good look to do the show,” said Chris Van Sickle, a singer and keyboardist with the group.

The concert was one of several Van Sickle had booked in the coming weeks. He’s frustrated, having lost yet more potential revenue, but remains hopeful that the new measures will be a good thing in the long run. “We’ve done a pretty good job on the Island. If we can all continue to do our bit, we’ll get through this a little faster.”

Jeff Bray, executive director of the Downtown Victoria Business Association, noted that retail businesses and restaurants have a good track record of preventing the spread of the virus.

“Certainly, we hope that people, as they have been, will continue to support local businesses by doing takeout if they don’t feel comfortable, and also ordering locally online … so that you get that local purchase, not just Amazon.”

As for travel, Henry said it’s not an order so much as an expectation that everybody in B.C. will limit all non-essential travel as much as possible. It does not apply to travel for medical appointments.

“We recognize that tourism is incredibly important to B.C,” said Henry. “But we are asking people in British Columbia to stay local right now, to stay within their community, to postpone recreational or social travel, whether that’s to Whistler, whether it’s to Tofino, whether it’s to visit your grandparents.”

Bray said local hotels will likely be hit hard. When the Lower Mainland travel restrictions were imposed, hotels here noticed a dramatic impact on occupancy rates, he said.

“So this will have a really bad impact on hotels,” he said. “I suspect that some of them are probably having to look at whether or not they can even stay open at this point.”

A total of 321 people have died of COVID-19 in B.C.

ceharnett@timescolonist.com

— With files from Lindsay Kines, Katie DeRosa and Mike Devlin

> Details of the order are here: gov.bc.ca/gov/content/safety/emergency-preparedness-response-recovery/covid-19-provincial-support/restrictions

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