Downtown break-ins and burglaries surge as pandemic-hit businesses shutter

Break-ins and burglaries have spiked in Victoria this year, leaving downtown business people wondering if they can ever bounce back.

Victoria police report a 119 per cent increase in break-ins from Jan. 1 to March 26 this year compared with the same period last year. More than 30 per cent of these break and enters were to underground areas, construction sites, outbuildings and sheds.

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Many businesses have closed in response to the pandemic, some because they were ordered to by the provincial health officer. Others have modified how they are doing business — offering delivery or take-out options, for example.

Jeff Bray, executive director of the Downtown Victoria Business Association, said his members are very much aware of the crime taking place during the COVID-19 lockdown and are growing increasingly frustrated.

“It’s really unfortunate when small- and medium-size businesses are facing such difficult times that some people will just take advantage,” Bray said. “It’s really quite disgusting.

“It could make the difference for some businesses surviving or not,” he said. “They just won’t have the ability to replace lost inventory or cover their insurance deductible.”

Victoria police say they have responded with an increase in patrol officers in downtown Victoria and Esquimalt.

Meanwhile, Victoria community resource officers are working with the businesses to help reduce the risks from burglars. Businesses have been urged to cover their windows, reinforce them if possible and move their inventory to secure sites elsewhere.

But Bray said it’s not enough. Police service either must be bolstered or assisted especially when so many business premises are vacant while owners and employees stay home and self isolate.

He is also part of the B.C. Business Improvement Association that has written to Mike Farnworth, minister of public safety and solicitor general, alerting him to the issue affecting “any main street of commercial area in B.C. right now.”

“With respect to vacant downtowns and the increase in crime, we are asking for additional resources be made available to control it,” Bray said.

It’s also time to start talking seriously about what downtown Victoria can do about maintaining public order after the pandemic response is over, he said.

“We need security downtown and we need rules enforced downtown,” Bray said. “Our businesses can’t afford to allow this to continue.”

In February, the Victoria Police Department announced plans to step up its presence in downtown amid concerns from businesses about a rise in shoplifting and slow police-response times. The move came after businesses in the Lower Johnson area said they were considering hiring private security.

“We are going to have to have a very honest conversation in downtown Victoria about what is the right balance between compassion and actual enforcement of the rules that we all live by,” Bray said.

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