COVID-19: B.C. travel restriction details revealed amid concerns about police enforcement

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      The rapid transmission of COVID-19 variants has raised concerns about travel for some time but it’s only now that widespread enforced measures will be undertaken in B.C.

      Yesterday (April 22), the federal government announced that flights from India and Pakistan would be banned for 30 days due to the B1617 variant.

      B.C. Premier John Horgan had announced on April 19 that provincial travel restrictions would be forthcoming this week due to continually rising hospitalized case numbers in B.C..

      Travel order

      Today (April 23), B.C. Solicitor General and Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth announced a new order, based upon advice from provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry.

      The order is effective from today to May 25 and applies to everyone, including non-essential travellers from outside of B.C.

      Farnworth said that the order focusses on non-essential travel, particularly recreational travel.

      The order is being introduced due to the high number of COVID-19 cases in B.C., particularly when it comes to variant cases and patients in hospitals, which are putting the healthcare system under increasing stress.

      Hospitalized cases have been rising for several consecutive days and constantly setting new records. As of yesterday (April 22), there were 502 hospitalized cases, with 161 people in intensive care units.

      "Community transmission and COVID-19 cases—including variants of concern—have increased in our health authorities, with many cases being linked to non-essential travel within B.C.," Henry said. "I am calling on everyone to stay in their local communities and support these travel restrictions to stop the most dangerous travel across regional zones to control the spread of COVID-19 and support our front-line health-care workers."

      Under the new order, British Columbians are prohibited from non-essential travel between three regional zones in B.C., based upon health authorities:

      1. Lower Mainland and the Fraser Valley, which includes Vancouver Coastal Health and Fraser Health regions;
      2. Vancouver Island, based on the Island Health region;
      3. the Interior and North, which includes Interior Health and Northern Health regions.

      Henry’s advice that everyone should stay in their local community, such as those in North Vancouver should remain on the North Shore rather than travelling throughout their regional zone to places like Richmond or the Fraser Valley, still apply.

      B.C. provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry
      Province of British Columbia

      Essential travel

      Some examples of travel considered essential and deemed essential include (but are not limited to):

      • attending work (including volunteer work), receiving training, or transporting commercial goods;
      • attending school, accessing childcare;
      • returning to a principal residence or moving residences;
      • either receiving or helping someone access healthcare or social services, or providing care to someone;
      • responding to emergencies or critical incidents, including those involving search and rescue;
      • attending a funeral service.

      Additional measures

      In conjunction with the travel restrictions, a number of other previously mentioned measures are being taken:

      • signage about non-essential travel will be increased on highways and at the B.C.–Alberta border;
      • B.C. Ferries will restrict non-essential vehicle travel, deter non-essential bookings, and limit sailings;
      • tourism and accommodation industry will encourage all operators and businesses to not take or cancel bookings from outside their regional zones;
      • police departments will be establishing enforcement measures, including road checks near ferry terminals and highways.

      Violations of this travel order can result in a $575 fine.

      More information about COVID-19 travel restrictions are available at the B.C. government website.

      Enforcement concerns

      Although enforcement details are still to be determined and announced, organizations are expressing concerns about what may come, particularly the impact upon marginalized and racialized community members.

      The B.C. Civil Liberties Association, Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, B.C. First Nations Justice Council, British Columbia Assembly of First Nations, First Nations Summit, Pivot Legal Society, Criminal Defence Advocacy Society, Coalition of Peers Dismantling the Drug War, Sanctuary Health, PACE Society, and the Pacific AIDS Network sent a joint letter on April 22 to the provincial government to ask questions about police enforcement.

      None of these organizations were involved in the consultation process for these measures.

      Farnworth stated during the news conference that he had met with a number of racialized community groups, who expressed concerns about the order, and that they had asked that the attendance be kept confidential.

      Union of BC Indian Chiefs president Grand Chief Stewart Phillip was among those from First Nations who voiced concerns about how the measures are being implemented.

      “Any introduction of an order that regulates movement of Indigenous people on our lands and exposes Indigenous peoples to further policing should have full consultation and consent of all First Nations in B.C.,” Phillip stated in a news release. “We need to ensure that necessary safeguards are in place and doesn’t deepen the problem of systemic racism against our peoples.”

      Although today’s announcement answered some of the questions in the joint letter, such as about health authority boundaries and how essential travel is defined, Pacific AIDS Network executive director J. Evin Jones stated in a news release that there are further considerations to be addressed.

      “We would expect the province to consider the various complex barriers of stigmatization and safety that may hinder people from disclosing that they are seeking access to certain support services, health services or anti-violence programs,” Jones stated. “While we are encouraged to see an expansive definition of essential travel in the order to include access to support services and volunteer work, we would encourage the province to consider an even broader definition, one that is more inclusive of grey economies and informal work that many persons rely on to meet their basic needs.” 

      B.C. Civil Liberties Association executive director Harsha Walia stated that her organization supports measures to protect people from COVID-19 but raised concerns about how these measures will be enforced.

      “Especially at a time of increased public scrutiny about systemic racism in policing, it is alarming that we now have three public announcements in the span of one week about increased police enforcement powers, but we still do not have details about the scope of these policing powers,” Walia explained in a news release. “In response to significant public pressure, it seems that the province is scaling back its plans, but we are still left to speculate. We continue to have several concerns regarding the serious constitutional and privacy issues at stake, as well as the potential harmful impacts of this order on Indigenous, Black and, racialized communities.”

      Prior to the announcement, Vancouver Police Union and the B.C. Police Association president Ralph Kaiser told News 1130 on April 20 that police also had concerns about potential impacts upon BIPOC community members and the position that officers could be placed in unless clear directions and guidelines were established.

      You can follow Craig Takeuchi on Twitter at @cinecraig or on Facebook.