British Columbia has tightened new COVID-19 restrictions announced just four days ago, with a directive Tuesday banning all social gatherings “of any size” until mid-January and closing the province’s bars, nightclubs, gyms, fitness centers, and dance studios.
The province is also suspending scheduled non-urgent surgeries, a number expected to total 3,000-3,500 a week, to free up hospital space to deal with arrival of the rapidly spreading Omicron variant. The measures’ intent, said provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, is “buying us time to understand and to prepare” after what she described as “explosive outbreaks” elsewhere.
At a briefing Tuesday, Dr. Henry and cabinet members called for limits to togetherness during the Christmas-New Year’s season. Official New Year’s celebrations were canceled just last Friday. Social gatherings at home should be reduced “as low as possible” in Henry’s words, and invitees should stay “with the same group of people.”
British Columbia has “one of the highest vaccination rates in the world for the first and second doses,” said B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix. Nearly 90 percent of those over 12 have received at least two shots in the arm. Still, the B.C. government is urging its citizens to stay close to home. “If you are not immunized, you should not be traveling and not be gathering,” advised Dr. Henry.
The latest partial shutdowns come at the end of what has been an “annus horribilis” for the province. British Columbia was once dubbed as Canada’s “lotus land” by one writer and a “place surrounded almost entirely by envy” for its relaxed lifestyle and physical beauty. Yet it is a province buffeted by the crises of 2021. It endured a COVID-19 “spike” last spring that led to travel restrictions even within the province. The summer brought a “heat dome” producing Canada’s all-time record temperature, 121 degrees in Lytton, a town nearly destroyed days later by wildfires as they swept the province. There followed the atmospheric river in mid-November that flooded big stretches of the Fraser Valley and the city of Merritt. Road access from Vancouver to the rest of Canada is only this week being partially restored.
And now Omicron. “We have a very fragile health-care-worker work force right now,” said Dr. Henry. “People are so tired. All of us had a ‘Here we go again’ feeling. It is really challenging looking down the line at what could happen. We are facing another crisis that we have to support each other to get through . . .Yeah, we’re tired but we will get through.” The opinion was echoed by Dix, the B.C. health minister. “Slowing the spread and keeping each other safe is a cause in which we are all connected. It’s that togetherness that will get us all through the next days and weeks,” said Dix.
It will still be possible to go out during the holiday season – within limits. Christmas worshippers can go to church but are asked to produce B.C. vaccination cards at the door. Fully vaccinated congregations can operate at full capacity, but attendance must be scaled back to 50 percent if unvaccinated believers are present. Concerts, sports games and theaters will be reduced to 50 percent of seated capacity, regardless of venue size. Restaurants must obey a limit of six people per table with physical distancing or barriers. The restrictions are temporary, in effect until January 20, 2022.
Quebec, which is harder hit, announced Monday that it is shutting schools, bars, gyms, and theatres. Restaurants must limit their capacity to 50 percent and close by 10 pm. “The epidemiological situation is critical; the community spread is astounding,” Quebec Health Minister Christian Dube told a news conference and added: “What we’re asking is that you limit your contacts to an absolute minimum.”
Quebec acted after recording 4,571 new cases of the virus over 24 hours ending Monday. British Columbia reported 2,550 new cases during the period of Friday through Sunday. The province’s rate of infection topped 1,000 new cases a day last winter. “Where this is really taking off is with young people, who are more (socially) connected,” Dr. Henry told Tuesday’s briefing.
So far, the measures adopted in B.C. are less sweeping than those employed earlier this year. Due to the spread of the coronavirus in the Lower Mainland, the province then restricted nonessential travel outside of health zones. Checkpoints at Hope stopped recreational travelers from proceeding east. Only essential and commercial travel was permitted across Georgia Strait to Vancouver Island.
Canada has not experienced as much “anti-vaxxer” resistance as seen in the United States, although a vaccine opponent threw gravel at Prime Minister Trudeau on the campaign trail last September. Leaders of all major political parties, save for the fringe Peoples Party, supported vaccination.
B.C. was slow to get vaccination going but has made substantial progress. As of Friday, 91.7 percent of those over 12 have received at least one shot, 88.8 percent have taken two needles in the arm, while 15 percent have already had a booster shot. As of Sunday, Dix announced, 727,761 British Columbians have received a booster shot. The number includes two-thirds of those aged 70 and above, and more than half of those over 65.
Dr. Henry took note of the date, Dec. 21, the winter solstice. The days start getting longer on Wednesday. Hopefully, nearly two years after arrival of the coronavirus, “we are moving toward the light,” she said, adding, ”Adversity introduces us to ourselves.”