All bark and no bite? Still no enforcement of B.C. travel ban
VANCOUVER -- Several days after the B.C. government implemented a bold ban on non-essential travel in the province, officials admit there is still no enforcement.
On Tuesday, John Horgan acknowledged there’s no been no action taken to restrict travel between health authorities, but claimed plans are still in the works. When challenged on whether there will be any enforcement at all before the “circuit breaker” lockdown expires after the May long weekend, Horgan was defensive.
“We lay out the orders, we lay out the laws and it's up to law enforcement to deploy resources to meet those expectations and I know (Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth) is working with (RCMP) E-Division, working with his officials in public safety to make sure that everybody's on the same page,” he said.
The government’s approach on a number of issues to curb infection-generating behaviour during the pandemic has hinged on public messaging relying heavily on terms like “expectations” and “discouragement” rather than enforcement, which has been light.
“I’m confident by the end of the week we will be (announcing details),” Horgan insisted.
But just days after the premier made the surprise announcement of Counter Attack-style road checks acting as a "random audit" to ensure people wouldn't travel between health authorities for non-essential reasons, Farnworth was already walking back the government’s position.
"Over the coming days, we will continue working with police to establish additional measures to ensure they have the necessary authority to conduct periodic roadside checks like the Counter Attack program at strategic points into and out of the defined regions," Farnworth said, announcing that Vancouver Coastal Health and Fraser Health would count as a single region, with Northern Health and Interior Health functioning in the same way.
It’s important to note, those hybrid regions are considerably larger than before, and allow someone from Abbotsford to legally travel to Whistler with nothing but a plea to keep them closer to home.
Not only that, Vancouver police and the RCMP were quick to say they had grave concerns about the plan and wanted nothing to do with enforcement that raised questions about exactly who would be stopped and under what circumstances.
While Farnworth pointed out typical BC Ferries traffic was down significantly over the first weekend since the non-essential travel ban’s announcement, he also admitted there would be zero enforcement at airports for flights between British Columbia communities — as well as other provinces.
“Interprovincial flights are federally regulated so the province has no jurisdiction when it comes to flights,” he said.
Hammered by journalists and critics questioning why he couldn’t restrict travel between provinces as British Columbia struggled through the second wave, Horgan issued a statement late on a Friday afternoon in January insisting his government had received legal advice that it wasn’t possible.
“The review of our legal options made it clear we can’t prevent people from travelling to British Columbia,” it read. “Much of current interprovincial travel is work related and therefore cannot be restricted.”
Fast forward to the third wave, with the April 19 announcement coming as B.C. staggered under the weight of soaring infections and as hospitals became overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients, suggesting the hurdle to travel restrictions was largely a political impediment, rather than a legal one.
And while some hotels and other hospitality bodies were cancelling bookings, that was of their own volition. Even BC Ferries acknowledged passengers are travelling under the honour system and ferries staff will take them at their word if they claim their travel is essential.
The strategy appears to be similar to the government’s policy around fines in the first wave of the pandemic: While the public safety minister made headlines about empowering bylaw officers, conservation officers and even liquor inspectors to go after pandemic rule-breakers, he didn’t actually give them the authority to issue fines until many months later.
Will we see even a single roadblock in and out of the Lower Mainland before the circuit breaker orders expire on Victoria Day?
It’s possible there will be a handful of enforcement actions, which government can point to as proof of keeping their word. But it increasingly looks like they’re counting on the initial threat of enforcement that came from headline-generating political rhetoric to change public behaviour, rather than any meaningful enforcement.