British Columbia’s top doctor has unveiled the province’s first region-specific provincial health officer order as the province grapples with surging COVID-19 numbers.
In announcing the order Saturday, provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry cited weeks of rising case numbers in the Lower Mainland, linked primarily to indoor social gatherings, and a corresponding “worrisome” increase in hospitalizations which exceeded 100 for the first time since April this week.
“Provincial health orders are always a last resort, but right now these additional measures are needed,” Henry said.
The orders are needed to ensure essential services, businesses and schools can remain open, she added.
The order goes into effect at 10 p.m. Saturday, and will remain in place for two weeks, until midnight on Nov. 23. The Central Coast and Bella Coola Valley are excluded from the order.
“We need to take urgent and focused action now to significantly bring down the rate of transmission across our two Metro Vancouver health authorities,” Health Minister Adrian Dix added.
“Not doing so will have serious consequences for all of us, independent of our age if our healthcare system cannot provide the quality of care needed to respond to accidents, to surgical medical care, due to increased sickness rates among healthcare workers, or increased demand on in-patient beds.”
Under the new order, residents are banned from visiting each others’ private homes for two weeks.
The order applies to social gatherings of “any size” with people other than one’s immediate household, regardless of whether it is fewer than 50 people or physical distancing is observed.
Weddings and funerals are permitted, but only with immediate family members.
Restaurants are unaffected by the new order, so long as they are closely following preexisting public health orders.
The order bans travel for sport into or out of the region.
It also “strongly recommends” a freeze on non-essential travel out of the Vancouver Coastal and Fraser Health regions, without implementing an outright ban.
Indoor group physical activities such as spin classes, yoga and group fitness are also banned until they have updated COVID-19 safety plans approved by their regional medical health officer.
Individual fitness gym activities are unaffected.
Indoor sports where physical distancing cannot be maintained are also suspended. The order does not apply to activities that are part of a school-based program.
All workplaces will also be required to conduct active, in-person screening for COVID-19. Added vigilance around physical distancing and mask wearing, particularly in smaller spaces, must be implemented, Henry said.
Businesses that are unable to stick to their COVID-19 safety plans will be shut down, Henry said.
Party buses and limos are also banned from operating.
Religious centres are not considered “social gatherings” and remain unaffected, so long as they stick to the 50 person limit, Henry said.
The new order does not affect daycares or schools, which Henry said the province was focused on keeping open.
“Schools are one of the things we want to protect because we know important it is for teachers, for students, for families to have schools operating,” Henry said.
“The focus is on reducing transmission in our communities. What we have not seen is a lot of transmission events in schools. Schools are not amplifying this virus, they are merely reflecting what’s going on in the community.”
While the new order has legal force, Henry said the province’s focus will be on education rather than enforcement.
The order came as Henry announced another 567 new cases of the virus, the second-highest the province has ever recorded in a single day. The record, 589 cases, was set just Friday. The province reported one new death.
Virtually all of the new cases were in the Fraser Health region (411) and the Vancouver Coastal Health region (122).
Twenty-two new cases were in the Interior Health region, nine in the Northern Health region and three on Vancouver Island.
However, Dix urged British Columbians outside of the Lower Mainland not to be complacent.
“The virus does not follow geographical boundaries,” he said, noting that active cases in the Interior Health region, while lower than in the Lower Mainland, were at an all-time high.
“What is required now is to remember the provincial health orders, to follow the guidance and follow the orders,” he said.
British Columbia has reported a total 17,716 cases.
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