Why travel ban is last emergency brake BC can pull before Ontario-style lockdown

Apr 20 2021, 8:39 am

BC Premier John Horgan has spent the last few weeks and months arguing against the need to limit travel to fight COVID-19.

Yet there he was headlining a press conference Monday to announce the most sweeping travel restrictions seen in modern BC history – a ban on non-essential travel between health authorities, starting Friday, backstopped by police roadblocks and random checks where officers will determine your travel intentions and ticket you for breaking the rules.

“This is done with a heavy heart, but it’s done with a resolute purpose that, together, for this next five weeks, we can get to the end,” he said, outlining the five-week measures.

It includes plans for cancelling ferries, travel bookings and camping reservations, as well as random road “audits” and new border signage.

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This extraordinary shift in BC’s position should tell you two things: First, the fight against the virus is not bending the province’s growth in cases as quickly as needed, with our hospitals approaching the highest “surge” capacity we’d planned for since the pandemic began, and public parties on Vancouver beaches last weekend showing some still aren’t taking it seriously.

And secondly, this is the last emergency brake the government can pull before it is forced into a more Ontario-style lockdown.

“We’re in a serious situation,” said Horgan. “We require serious measures if we’re going to get to the May long weekend and salvage our summer.”

However, by Ontario’s standards BC still has a long way to go.

Ontario has an official “stay-at-home order” that bans golf, skate parks, picnics and leaving your house except for going to the grocery store, pharmacy, health care services, work or for exercise, whereas BC has not done any of those things and has no such order.

Ontario has put checkpoints at its borders with Manitoba and Quebec, whereas BC is only putting up signs at the Alberta border “reminding travellers from outside the province that unless they are coming for essential business, they should not be here,” said Horgan.

Ontario has shut down non-essential businesses, including major construction sites, whereas BC continues to resist such a move, with Dr. Henry insisting “we can avoid the need for (economic) sector closures, which are really a blunt tool” by trying other things first, like a ban in indoor dining now extended to May 25.

Ontario has blocked off areas of stores where non-essential items are sold, limiting purchase to only things like food and key supplies, whereas BC has allowed most non-essential businesses and construction sites to stay open (except movie theatres, conference centres, and a few other select types of businesses).

And then the big one: Ontario has authorized police officers to stop anyone and ask for their home address and reason why they are not at home.

In this area, BC appears to be following suit.

It’s not entirely clear how it will work – Monday’s rollout by Horgan was remarkably light on details and sloppy on messaging.

But it’s clear British Columbians will soon be approached by police officers asking for details on where they live, where they are going and whether their reason for being out is “essential.” 

That includes at random checkpoints on BC highways and roads, which the premier described as similar to impaired driving roadblocks and argued due to their randomness won’t disproportionately target any group, such as people of colour or minorities.

“This is not heavy-handed in my mind, it’s random and it will be done in a way that includes everyone in a particular place at a particular time and there will be consequences if you are outside your area on non-essential business,” said Horgan.

The goal is to restrict people to their health authority, said the premier.

Health authority boundaries confusing

If you have not the foggiest clue where the borders of your health authority are — or even what health authority you live in — you could be forgiven. Most British Columbians don’t live their life with the faintest knowledge of such boundaries, and adjusting to suddenly not being able to travel from the City of Vancouver (Vancouver Coastal Health) to Burnaby (Fraser Health) will be jarring.

The same goes for travelling from Richmond (Vancouver Coastal) to New Westminster (Fraser).

It gets particularly complicated when you consider a trip through the George Massey Tunnel takes you from Delta on one side (Fraser), to Richmond on the other (Vancouver Coastal).

The dividing line is less confusing for residents of Vancouver Island, who could drive from Victoria on the southern tip to Port Hardy on the northern tip without ever leaving their one health region. Is that allowed?

“We’re asking people to use their common sense,” replied Horgan, without explaining how such a thing could be interpreted by a police officer at a checkpoint.

In fact, there were far more questions than answers about the plan on Monday, with little indication we’ll be getting concrete details until the end of the week.

How often are these borders going to be policed and in what fashion? Unclear, the government isn’t saying.

What will the fines be if you are caught breaking the rules? Also unclear.

What is considered “essential travel?” Super unclear.

Will BC follow Ontario’s lead and designate essential travel as including medical reasons, childcare, child custody, the transport of essential goods and First Nations travel? Double super unclear. 

So much for details. 

Horgan said Solicitor General Mike Farnworth will have more information Friday when the actual restrictions begin.

“We wanted to have this discussion today so people understood we’re not going to follow other provincial leads and bring forward proposals that can’t be enforced or that reduce confidence in our objective which is to collectively say, let’s redouble our efforts and bear down for the next five weeks so we can have the summer all of us desperately want,” said Horgan.

So, in summary, BC will lurch into the most severe travel restrictions it has faced since World War II on Friday.

This, despite the premier and Dr. Henry saying for months now they were trying everything they could to avoid this exact scenario.

It’s frightening the province is now in a situation where random police roadblocks will determine whether you can travel and where you can go during this state of emergency. 

But as Ontario has proven, it could be worse. If we can’t get COVID-19 cases under control in BC, it soon will be.

Rob ShawRob Shaw

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