Travel restrictions still on the table as COVID-19 cases rise: B.C. premier

Premier John Horgan, troubled by high COVID-19 daily case counts, says further restrictions, including on travel, are being discussed.

If the province’s top doctor believes there’s an opportunity for the province to use some form of border restrictions, “we’ll look at that,” Horgan said during a media availability on Tuesday when the province announced 873 new COVID-19 cases, including 43 in Island Health.

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Dr. Bonnie Henry, provincial health officer, will present COVID-19 modelling data on Thursday, when updates on restrictions would be announced.

The premier said cabinet will discuss today a host of measures, including travel restrictions, the status of bookings for hotels, bed and breakfasts, houseboats and campgrounds.

The B.C. Restaurant and Food Services Association posted a letter to members on Tuesday saying after meeting with Henry it believed “the current PHO order restricting in-restaurant dining will be extended beyond April 19th through to May.”

Over the weekend, there were 3,289 new cases and Henry noted about 50 per cent of new COVID cases are now more highly transmissible variants of concern, mostly the U.K. variant.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Tuesday the COVID-19 situation the country faces remains “extremely serious” with Ontario announcing a record single-day high of new cases on Sunday. Intensive-care beds across the country are filling up “and the patients in them are younger and younger.”

He said that Canada has some of the strongest restrictions in the world for incoming travel from overseas but “unfortunately we’re still getting a lot of transmission inside the country. He cited the “extraordinarily successful” Atlantic bubble that those provinces created without the federal government “dictating” it. “We are here to support the provinces as they make difficult decisions on restrictions,” said Trudeau.

Provincial health orders restricting indoor dining, faith gatherings and fitness classes imposed as a three-week “circuit breaker” to slow the spread of COVID-19 are in place until April 19. The province extended on Tuesday its state of emergency to April 27.

Curfews in Quebec have not been effective and harsher restrictions in Ontario have not seen a decline in case counts there, said Horgan.

“Our approach has been always to be nimble, to be focused on what we can do to keep people safe, what we can do to protect individuals, communities and businesses, and that’s exactly what we’ll do, but it requires all of us working together,” said Horgan.

He said he talked with Alberta Premier Jason Kenney on Monday about essential and non-essential travel between the two provinces.

“So we have not taken anything off the table but practicality is first and foremost in our mind — what can we usefully do to protect people is always there — and as I say cabinet meets tomorrow, all these issues will be on the table.”

Interprovincial travel restrictions have been a hot-button issue but the B.C. government has pointed to their impracticality, difficulty to enforce, and the impact on the flow of essential goods.

Horgan noted that 106 travellers who recently arrived in B.C. tried to circumvent federal quarantine orders. Law enforcement have issued significant fines to those rule breakers “far in excess of what the cost of three days in the hotel would be.”

He said the province is taking advice from public health officials: “We’re following the science and if Dr. Henry believes that there’s an opportunity for us to use some form of border restrictions, we’ll look at that.”

About 25 per cent of those eligible in B.C. have had a first dose of vaccine. Until transmissions flatten and the vaccinations percentage is much higher, Henry is asking people to stick to their “immediate neighbourhood.”

Whistler has been cited as an epicentre of COVID-19 cases. People who live and work in the ski-resort town in the Vancouver Coastal Health region are now eligible for vaccination as part of a targeted approach to hotspots.

Some Whistler workers have arrived in Tofino, said Mayor Dan Law. Seasonal workers arrive in Tofino every year in the spring, he said.

“This year there is some concern about transmission via visitors and workers arriving from affected ski resort communities; however, our community is very aware and our businesses are preparing,” Law said in an email. Island Health is also exploring ways to address the issue, he said.

Island Health’s whole-community vaccine program was in its second day of vaccinations in Tofino on Tuesday “so I remain hopeful,” said Law.

People in Ucluelet, Port Hardy, Mayne Island, Port McNeill and Port Alice are scheduled for vaccinations this week.

ceharnett@timescolonist.com

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