One month after Canada Day outbreak, Kelowna struggles to balance tourism and COVID-19 sense

·4 min read

Kelowna is known for its beaches, wineries, golf courses, and stunning views — a perfect summer getaway — but this long weekend, there is also apprehension about welcoming tourists as the city continues to deal with the ripple effects of a COVID-19 outbreak.

Officials have doubled down on messaging about safe socializing as Kelowna grapples with a major public outbreak linked to large indoor parties from the last long weekend. Public health officials have said indoor gatherings and private parties that took place around Canada Day led to at least 130 new COVID-19 infections, and forced 1,000 people into self-isolation.

The outbreak also led to new rules around restaurants, bars, and nightclubs, and new restrictions limiting the number of people allowed on rental properties and boats, including houseboats.

"We can make this B.C. Day holiday weekend one where we find the right balance: having those important social connections with our friends and family, while taking precautions to protect ourselves and those around us," Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry and B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix said in a written statement issued on Friday, while announcing another 50 cases.

In downtown Kelowna, city officials are now patrolling popular spaces to make sure people are practising common sense — keeping bubbles small, maintaining physical distance, and wearing masks. City staff have so far responded to 600 complaints about physical distancing, but so far no fines have been issued.

Tom Popyk/CBC
Tom Popyk/CBC

Kelowna Mayor Colin Basran said this weekend will be a tough test for a city that is so dependent on summer visitors. He said the city is deferring to the province's authority — and recognizes the need to maintain its vital tourism industry while preventing a second outbreak.

"[Henry]'s the one in control here, she's the one in charge, and she's the one that doesn't think there needs to be different rules for Kelowna and we agree with that," he said.

Over the past weeks a number of photos of revellers thwarting rules and partying in large groups have been posted to social media, drawing now-familiar shaming and condemnation.

"We're telling tourists and residents to continue to be vigilant and act as if people near you have the virus. It falls upon everyone as individuals to do their part, so it's unfortunate that it's still not getting through to some people," said Basran.

While RCMP said in a statement they respond to noise complaints about parties like they would at any other time, it's not their job to enforce COVID-19 regulations. And short-term rental company Airbnb said that while they've said no parties are allowed in their rentals, enforcement is up to individual hosts.

Local tourism operators taking major hit

Cruise operator Mike Reddecliffe says even though B.C.'s gradual reopening has allowed tourists to flock to the city, business has dried up as weddings and corporate events have been cancelled.

"The COVID-19 regulations have kind of squashed that, which is understandable, but it's kind of taken a hit on us," he said.

Reddecliffe said his company is still offering public cruises, where he can ensure that everyone on the boat is seated and spaced apart. But the new restrictions slapped on after the start of the Canada Day outbreak, including the ban on dance floors, led to the cancellation of the private events that make up much of his income.

Reddecliffe said it's frustrating to see boaters continue to thwart the rules, hoping for a day that feels normal on the water, while local businesses willingly take financial hits to ensure safety.

"People are going to find a way to go party on a boat that's not as [visible] as our boat — other houseboats, smaller boats, they're going to happen. We have contact tracing, we have a manifest that we keep on board. If anything would happen, we could give that to the BCCDC," he said.

Reddecliffe said on what is usually one of the busiest weekends of the summer, he's now just hoping to break even.

"It's unfortunate that it comes down on businesses like mine when we're trying to do the right thing."