The province’s top health official announced new ‘circuit breaker’ restrictions that will close indoor dining, group fitness activities and expanded mandatory mask mandates in schools as officials expressed concern amid rising COVID-19 case counts.
The new restrictions, which come into effect starting Tuesday, March 30 and run until Monday, April 19, were unveiled by Dr. Bonnie Henry, following a weekend provincial COVID-19 case count that eclipsed 2,500 over three days.
In announcing the circuit breaker restrictions, Dr. Henry said the province’s balance of keeping people safe with existing COVID-19 measures is now off, as case counts rise, including those identified as variants of concern.
“In the last six days, we’ve seen the start of exponential growth in new cases,” said Dr. Henry, “we’ve seen more hospitalizations and more people requiring critical care and the strain on our acute care systems is ramping up. We do not yet have enough people protected with our vaccines to keep our loved ones and our communities safe.”
The circuit breaker restrictions include banning indoor dining at restaurants, but service to outdoor patios, as well as takeout and delivery is allowed. Indoor adult group fitness activities are restricted to individual or one-on-one environments.
Additionally, previously approved variances for indoor faith services has been been rescinded.
Dr. Henry also emphasized that essential travel should be limited to work or medical reasons, while announcing the closure of Whistler-Blackcomb ski resort until April 19.
“We have seen increasing cases related to travel over these past few weeks,” said Dr. Henry. “We know people have taken advantage of the weather and the March break to go places with their family and what that has meant is we’ve seen a rapid rise of cases as people return to their home community.”
For schools across the province, a mask mandate was issued for Grades 4-12 to wear masks at all times in the classrooms, while grades three and under are strongly encouraged to wear masks.
Premier John Horgan said case counts have risen “unacceptably high” and testing percentages are also increasing substantially.
Premier Horgan also spoke directly to the 20-39 age group, noting a need to redouble efforts to adhere to the COVID-19 restrictions and focus on individual responsibility for the greater good.
“My appeal to you is do not blow this for the rest of us,” said Horgan.
Local reaction to ‘circuit breaker’ restrictions
Local reaction to the province’s circuit breaker restrictions was swift.
“It’s really hard to identify one thing,” said Kootenay East MLA Tom Shypitka. “We all understand the situation we’re in; we’re in a global pandemic. We understand that, we’ve been through this for a year now, so you’d think after a year, you’d start to have something a little more consistent and a little more heads up.
“Restaurant owners and small business owners got hit with a closure with essentially enough time to wipe the tables down, lock the doors and they’re gone until the [April] 19th. This is what happened during New Years, it’s happened during other holidays where the government just figures that businesses can operate with an on-off light switch.
“It doesn’t work that way.”
Shypitka, a former restaurant owner, said he knows the challenges the industry faces in the best of times, never mind a global pandemic.
“You do the due diligence, you order food, you stock your fridges, you got your produce, you got your poultry, you got your meat, you’ve got everything ready to go, you’re bar is stocked, and then the government gives you a six-hour notice to say, ‘Guess what, you’re closed for three weeks,'” he said.
“That’s unfair, in and of itself, and then of course, when you restart, you can’t just open at the drop of a hat, either.”
Danielle Eaton, the owner of Soulfood Farm to Table, confirmed she had no advance warning that indoor dining was set to be restricted until Monday’s announcement.
“I’m frustrated because I don’t believe that the information justifies the action,” Eaton said. “I also don’t believe that our region should be subject to the same blanket rule as Vancouver Coastal and Fraser Health.”
Eaton added her business doesn’t qualify for federal wage subsidies or commercial rent relief.
She met with her staff of 20 employees on Tuesday, committing to no layoffs unless requested.
Take out dining options are being “pushed hard” and an online ordering system has been developed, Eaton said. The restaurant will offer frozen meals that can be ordered online and delivered weekly and plans are in the works, with support from other local businesses, to build an outdoor patio.
In light of the restrictions, the City of Cranbrook also announced efforts to tweak provisions in a seasonal patio program, which would allow restaurants to easily expand outdoor seating capacity.
City council will be meeting over the next few days to discuss the seasonal patio program and ensure all the necessary approvals are in place.
The Cranbrook Chamber of Commerce is also pushing the province for a regional approach to COVID-19 measures, as well as more advance notice from provincial authorities if further restrictions are being contemplated. The organization is working with regional counterparts to gather testimonials from local businesses to present to Health Minister Adrian Dix and Dr. Henry.
Cranbrook’s COVID-19 case counts
The restrictions were announced following stark increases in places like Fraser Health and Vancouver Coastal Health, which has seen a significant rise in case counts and positivity rates in testing.
For Interior Health, the daily case counts fluctuate, but the seven-day rolling average has seen a steady increase, as has positivity rates in testing.
In the context of Cranbrook, it’s difficult to get a clear picture of the local COVID-19 situation.
According to the Cranbrook Local Health Area (LHA) maps released weekly by the B.C. Centre for Disease Control, Cranbrook has had 48 identified cases of COVID-19 since the beginning of the new year. The highest case count this year in the Cranbrook LHA was reported between Jan 17-23 at nine cases, which also coincided with a community cluster in Fernie, which reported 44 cases the same week.
There’s isn’t any publicly available data that discloses LHA-level testing rates or seven-day rolling averages or active cases.
The BC CDC’s cumulative LHA map shows that Cranbrook has identified 83 cases between January 2020 and February 2021. Contrast those numbers with other jurisdictions that have been harder hit, such as Surrey LHA, which has seen 21,297 cases. Or closer to home in the BC Interior, where Central Okanagan LHA has seen 2,959 cases in the same time frame.
As of Tuesday, March 30, the BC CDC reports there are 447 active case in Interior Health, 17 of which are in hospital and five in critical care. In comparison, Fraser Health has 3,452 active cases and Vancouver Coastal has 2,283 active cases.