COVID-19 in B.C.: New enforcement empowers officers to target house parties, events, and belligerent patrons
While B.C provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry has frequently stated that her approach is to emphasize education rather than enforcement for COVID-19 pandemic guidelines, the provincial government is stepping in after constant increases in case numbers over recent weeks.
Since the Canada Day long weekend, parties held across the province have been an issue of concern, and have contributed to outbreaks, surges in numbers of cases among young adults, and rises in case numbers that have hit record highs.
B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix had previously announced on August 17 that after Lower Mainland public health teams conducted inspections of 128 banquet halls on the weekend of August 14, stricter enforcement would be coming.
New enforcement measures
Today (August 21), B.C. Solicitor General and Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth held a news conference to announce new enforcement measures that are effective immediately.
Farnworth thanked the “vast majority of British Columbians who have been doing an extraordinary job of keeping COVID-19 out of our communities” by making sacrifices practising health measures.
However, he said that there is “a small minority of selfish individuals across the province who are disregarding the public health measures in place”, and referred to large private house parties, and unsanctioned events on streets and beaches, that have been witnessed or reported in news.
“These irresponsible actions are putting our most vulnerable at risk,” he said. “We can’t let the bad decisions made by a few erode the progress that we have made together.”
"These orders will help us put a stop to the selfish acts of a small minority of British Columbians, who are threatening to erode the progress our province has made in controlling COVID-19," Farnworth stated.
Farnworth stated that the province is authorizing police and other provincial enforcement officers to issue $2,000 violation tickets to owners, organizers, or operators who disobey the orders of the provincial health officer (PHO) for gatherings and events.
Violations include hosting a party, gathering, or event (public or private) with over 50 people, not providing hand sanitation and washroom facilities, not providing enough space for physical distancing, not recording a list of names and contacts at a large event, or having over five guests at a vacation accommodation.
“To be clear, just because your party has less than 50 people, does not make it legal,” Farnworth added. “You must follow guidelines.”
Beyond venues and promoters, he stated that they will also be targeting “problematic attendees and individuals”.
Anyone who doesn’t follow the directions of police or enforcement staff at events, refuses to comply with requests to follow PHO orders or safe-operating procedures, or responds with abusive behaviour will be fined $200.
In addition, anyone who encourages others to attend gatherings or events that fail to meet health requirements or who refuses to leave when told to do so by enforcement officers will receive a $200 violation ticket.
Food and beverage establishments
An ongoing issue experienced by those in food and beverage, service, and hospitality industries has been dealing with individuals requesting inappropriate changes made to accommodate them, such as ignoring PHO orders.
Anyone who doesn’t comply with PHO or the operating procedures of a restaurant, bar, or other licensed establishment or who is abusive to or bullying employees will also receive a $200 violation ticket.
“People make mistakes, and if you’re asked to leave to gathering, leave,” Farnworth stated. “Don’t yell at the waiter who asks you not to push your tables together at a restaurant. Don’t be belligerent towards the hardworking people who are trying to keep us all safe.”
B.C.’s Alliance of Beverage Licensees executive director Jeff Guignard stated in a news release that his organization—whose members include pubs, bars, nightclubs, private liquor and cannabis stores, hotels, and more—is “pleased” to see enforcement.
"Our primary concern continues to be the health and safety of both patrons and workers in British Columbia,” he said.
In cases where either violation tickets do not stop behaviour, there are “particularly egregious contraventions”, or there are repeat offences involved, police can recommend charges. Upon conviction, up to $10,000 in penalties can be imposed.
B.C. is also enlisting compliance and enforcement staff from provincial ministries—including liquor, cannabis, and gaming inspectors; community safety unit inspectors; and conservation officers—to support enforcement and issuing fines, in addition to police. WorkSafeBC investigators will also assist.
“This is an all-hands-on-deck approach,” Farnworth stated.
When asked about why B.C. Hydro has not been being involved to disconnect power from houses or locations where health violations are taking place like some other jurisdictions are doing, Farnworth stated that the measures announced today are what they deem as the “appropriate response” to address the current situation.
“We’ve been engaged in step-by-step enforcement, and we will continue to do that,” he explained. He added that police have measures under other orders to deal with various situations if necessary.
Violations at events, venues, or by individuals can be reported to local bylaw offices (in Vancouver, call 311) or, if bylaw offices are unavailable, local police through non-emergency lines.
The City of Vancouver also stated in a news release today that it has a staff enforcement team for private property, businesses, parks, and beaches, who provide education about compliance with PHOs.
The city explained that what is not enforceable includes people not washing hands or not wearing face coverings, social gatherings complying with health orders, and concerns about workers or staff.
The provincial government’s measures are being enacted under the provincial state of emergency, which was extended on August 18 until September 1.
“Remember,” Farnworth said, “a party is not worth someone’s life.”