As British Columbians eagerly await specifics on how restrictions will be eased in coming months, B.C.’s top doctor has the difficult task – envious to few – in finding the balance of supporting business and social needs while maintaining safety.
The biggest concern for provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry to consider is ensuring the province won’t see a resurgence of cases, which could lead to high rates of hospitalizations and puts older demographics and those with underlying health conditions at risk.
Over several news conferences in recent weeks, Henry has voiced that while she understands many are feeling fatigue due to weeks-turned-into-months of social restrictions all of that hard work to flatten the curve could be undone – and rather quickly – if easing restrictions isn’t backed by evidence-based and thoughtful planning.
“We will not move forward with opening up different sectors until we’re ready, until we’re sure that we have a plan that is workable, and make sure we have these plans and precautions in place,” she told reporters on Saturday (May 2).
Re-opening will likely include “engineering controls” or physical barriers such as Plexiglass walls, Henry explained, as well as personal protective equipment for employees and caps on the number of people allowed inside a store or facility to maintain two metres of physical distancing.
While Henry and Premier John Horgan have hinted that restaurants could be one of the first industries to be re-opened, there are a number of sectors that will likely have to wait, specifically casinos.
“It’s certainly not in the first phase of what I’m considering or what we’re considering in terms of of how do we get things moving again in our economy and in our social structures and such,” Henry said on Thursday.
Meanwhile, Horgan said earlier this week that in-classroom teaching won’t resume until September.
Poultry plants, care homes remain top concerns in weeks ahead
Each province has started taking strides to developing plans to re-open businesses.
In Prince Edward Island, gatherings up to five people from different households are now allowed, as well as non-contact outdoor recreational activities.
Garden centres, automatic car washes and some workplaces will be restarting Monday in Ontario.
In New Brunswick, post-secondary students are back in physical classrooms. Social contact restrictions have been eased to allow two families to meet in person at a time.
Outside of Montreal, retail stores will open back up Monday while businesses located within the city will do the same on May 11. Quebec has seen the highest number of cases and fatalities due to COVID-19, but government officials there plan to be testing 14,000 people a day in coming weeks.
Henry said Saturday that plans will look different province to province because orders and bans were implemented at different times and under varying circumstances.
“If we look at what we have put in place and the orders and restrictions here in B.C., they have not been as draconian if you might say as some of the other places, so we also need to look at timing,” Henry said.
There are also still a number of concerns around ongoing outbreaks, within 20 long-term care homes across the province, as well as in three acute-care clinics, three poultry facilities and an oilsands project in northern Alberta implicating workers from B.C.
“It is a bit of a cautionary tale for us that we have seen these outbreaks in these poultry plants, for example,” Henry said. “That tells us that we need to make sure that we have the right safety measures in place in each different area of our economy to make sure that we can all be comforted and understand that we are opening up safely, slowly and methodically.”
B.C. must consider neighbours to the south, Henry says
Even as groups such as the B.C. Restaurant and Foodservices Association get tasked with crafting potential plans on what re-opening certain industries could look like, one of the biggest threats to B.C.’s transmission rates is located south of the border.
“We are very close to a very large country that is having itself a very large outbreak,” Henry said. “As we know, early on, Washington state had a dramatic increase in cases that affected us quite dramatically here in B.C.”
Last week, Ottawa and White House officials agreed to extend the current border closure until roughly May 18, for now. While Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said travel restrictions will only be lifted when health officials determine it is absolutely safe to do so, President Donald Trump has motioned he would support re-opening the border to boost the economy.
On Monday, the B.C. government is expected to unveil its latest data on COVID-19 case modelling since expanding testing strategies to include more people who show symptoms related to the respiratory illness.
Horgan is also expected to unveil a multi-phase plan in how eased restrictions will be phased in. Henry said testing will be a vital piece in entering these stages, as well as contact tracing to accurately track community transmission of the disease.
It’s unclear how long the eased restrictions will last. Henry, backed by several other health officials in the country, have warned that daily life will include some social contact restrictions – which could be tightened again in the fall – until there is a vaccine.
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