B.C. announces mask mandate, temporary social lockdown for entire province
VANCOUVER -- The B.C. government has introduced sweeping new measures aimed at curbing the spread of COVID-19, including a new mandatory mask policy and a temporary social lockdown that applies to the entire province.
In an urgent and pleading news conference Thursday, provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry also announced that church worship services are being suspended, certain fitness facilities are closing and parents across B.C. are no longer allowed to watch their children play sports.
"We are in our second surge, and it has proved to be a challenge," she said. "I know we will get through this, but we need to take more action now."
The restrictions, which are among the strictest enacted in the province so far, come as B.C. watches coronavirus case numbers skyrocket, breaking local records and putting strain on the health-care system.
The mask mandate applies to indoor public spaces and retail environments, where customers and employees alike are required to cover their faces.
Henry noted there is an exemption for children under the age of two and anyone who is unable to wear a mask.
"We know that there are people with certain conditions and disabilities that, in some ways, would make mask-wearing challenging," she said. "And we need to be aware that some people's disabilities or inability to wear a mask may not be readily apparent."
Several jurisdictions across Canada have already introduced mandatory mask policies for public spaces, including the City of Toronto, but B.C. health officials have been hesitant to follow suit. Henry said the sudden reversal was due to increasing public pressure, including from businesses, some of which have expressed concerns about putting the onus of enforcing piecemeal policy onto workers.
The mask mandate isn't being implemented by public health order, but by B.C. Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth under the extraordinary powers granted by the province's record-breaking state of emergency, Henry said.
A post on the province's website said the mandate would come into effect immediately.
The provincial health officer also announced her order curtailing social interactions in B.C.'s Lower Mainland is being extended by two more weeks, and expanded to every region of the province.
The rules, which have been in place since Nov. 7, require that people only socialize in-person with their "core bubble," which for most British Columbians means members of their own household.
"Your immediate household can of course include roommates," Henry said. "And if you live on your own, you can visit with up to one or two people, if you regularly spend time with them."
The order was originally set to expire on Nov. 23, but will now remain in place until Dec. 7.
The restriction doesn't apply to activities like helping a family member fix a furnace or picking up a relative's kids from school, Henry said. Going for a walk outside isn't considered a social gathering either under the expanded order, though officials urged people not to let walks turn into "a group of people meeting outside."
B.C. residents are also still allowed to have cleaners and repair crews over to their home, provided everyone takes steps to protect themselves and each other from COVID-19 exposure and transmission.
The provincial health officer indicated early results of the social lockdown in the Lower Mainland have been disappointing. Cases continue to increase at an alarming rate, a troubling trend seen in every health authority in the province, not just in the Vancouver area and Fraser Valley.
Henry took a moment to specifically address young people, acknowleding many have missed out on important transitional moments like graduations. But as hospitalizations and deaths from the virus climb, Henry said the diligent efforts of younger generations are needed more than ever.
"I'm calling on all of you right now," she said. "I need you. I need you to be superheroes, to step up, to hold the line and to help all of us get through."
Recent modelling from the province showed that people in their 20s have been driving much of the recent surge in cases, which has once again spilled over into care homes. There are now more than 50 active outbreaks in B.C.'s health-care system, most in long-term care and assisted living facilities.
The province recorded its deadliest day of the pandemic so far on Tuesday, when 11 coronavirus fatalities were announced. On Wednesday, B.C. set a new record for daily cases with 767 new infections, and the province's active caseload reached a new high of 6,929 Thursday.
At the beginning of September, as the province was preparing to send children back to school, the active case count was just 1,124.
The temporary ban on in-person worship services is also scheduled to last until Dec. 7. Henry said group support services such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous that are sometimes held in churches will be able to continue, and that "time-sensitive" events like baptisms, weddings and funerals can proceed with no more than 10 people. Receptions of any size are not allowed.
Only indoor fitness facilities that host activities considered to be high-risk, such as hot yoga, spin classes and high-intensity interval training, are being forced to close. Other studios, including those that provide dance and martial arts classes, are allowed to remain open.
The news is likely to be disappointing to some gym owners in the Vancouver Coastal Health region, who were recently allowed to reopen after abruptly being given closure orders less than two weeks ago.
More detail on the government's latest restrictions are available on the Ministry of Health website.