The province has formally announced travel restrictions between health regions within B.C., but questions remain about border activity and enforcement of the new rules from out-of-province travellers.
Mike Farnworth, Solicitor General and Minister for Public Safety, announced the order during a press conference on Friday after a week of confusion following initial comments Monday from Premier John Horgan, who hinted that the travel restrictions were pending.
The order essentially breaks up the province into three regions, grouping Interior Health and Northern Health into one region, Vancouver Coastal Health and Fraser Health into one region, and Vancouver Island into one region.
While non-essential travel has been discouraged for months now, the new order under the Emergency Program Act adds legal consequences if anyone is travelling long distances across the province and crossing multiple health authority jurisdictions.
“The new variant strains are infecting more people and resulting in record levels of hospitalizations that place a growing strain on the front-line health workers who have been here for us throughout this pandemic,” said Farnworth in a press release. “To help protect them and our communities, we must do more to discourage travel and begin to enforce restrictions on non-essential travel.
“While this new legal order targets those who are travelling across regional zones for recreational purposes, the advice from Dr. Henry to stay local remains in place everywhere in B.C. Do not go to Whistler or Tofino – even on a day trip. Everyone should stay close to home.”
Enforcement will be conducted through road check stops, similar to what is set up for impaired driving campaigns, according to Farnworth. The road checks will be established in key travel corridors connecting different regions of the province and at B.C. Ferry terminals.
The order — effective immediately — will run until May 25 and penalties for contravening the terms may include a $575 fine.
In addition to enforcement, tourism and accommodation associations are encouraging operators to decline bookings from out-of-region travellers, while B.C. Parks is also informing the public about restrictions and refunding bookings if necessary.
While non-essential travel is banned, essential travel is still allowed. That includes many different definitions and permitted reasons, including for work and volunteerism, moving or helping a person move, commercially transporting goods, receiving health care or social services or assisting someone to receive those services, attending court, complying with a court order, going to school, attending a funeral, and more.
The order, which will include the specific legal language for permitted activities and consequences, will be publicly released next week, according to Farnworth.
In the context of Alberta, signage will be placed on highways into the province to discourage non-essential travel from out-of-province travellers, however Farnworth was non-committal about how penalties will be administered to those potential offenders.
“Certainly, if you’re coming into British Columbia from Alberta, and then you decide that you’re now going to go to Vancouver, no, you potentially could get a fine,” said Farnworth, during the press conference. “The fines we’ve outlined today are $575 and that will be in the order as well.”
Local elected officials blasted the pending travel restrictions earlier this week, ahead of Friday’s formal announcement.
Kootenay-Columbia MP Rob Morrison, the region’s federal representative, has been a vocal critic of the province’s regional approach to COVID-19 restrictions.
“I always question the provincial government on this regional approach,” Morrison said. “For us, people who live in Alberta and people who live in Kootenay-Columbia — either they work in Alberta and travel to Alberta from B.C. or they work in B.C., say for example, with Teck in the Sparwood, Elkford, Fernie area, but they live in Alberta.
“For us, it’s really different than, for example, the Lower Mainland. I struggle with the fact that when will the provincial government recognize that these remote rural, areas like what we have are totally different than what’s happening in Vancouver.”
Likewise, Kootenay East MLA Tom Shypitka noted that the provincial government had earlier held off on implementing travel restrictions following the results of a legal review on the feasibility or legality of closing the provincial border.
That legal review concluded that much of the current interprovincial travel is for work-related purposes and cannot be restricted, however options for restrictions on non-essential travel remained on the table at the time, according to a written statement released by Horgan in January.
Shypitka said the newest non-essential restrictions rollout has been marked by confusion and vague language.
“It creates this animosity,” Shypitka said. “Now people in B.C. are fighting with people not only outside our province, but now we’re fighting with people inside our province.”