Read between the lines: more restrictions will come to B.C. if people don't act responsibly soon

It's famously said "a week is a long time in politics," but that can equally apply to what British Columbians are being told is allowed during the COVID-19 outbreak.

It's become clear that government has put the onus on people if they want heavy handed measures to be avoided — and the people are failing.

Consider last Friday: Chief Medical Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry bluntly said people without symptoms should continue to live relatively normal lives, provided they practice social distancing.

"We're not talking about shutting down society here. It's still very safe today all across B.C. to go out, to go shopping, to go to restaurants. And in particular, we have a lot of things we can do outdoors," she said.

One week later, Henry made it illegal to eat in any restaurants in B.C. — takeout and delivery are still okay — and said people should think twice about some of the things they do outdoors. 

"We're not to be outside in groups. We're not to be out playing basketball. We're not to be outside in large groups sitting on the beach, watching the beautiful sunsets," she said.

Her advice came hours after Darrell Reid, head of Vancouver's emergency response team for the outbreak, was even blunter about going outside.

"Whenever you can, stay home, reduce the risk, and know that's an amazing thing you can do," he said.  

In normal times, it could be seen as a case of a government flip-flop.

Except we're not in normal times. 

Maggie MacPherson/CBC

'There are people failing to comply'

The way the COVID-19 virus affects people hasn't changed in the last week: it still isn't transmitted by air. It still won't spread to somebody that keeps a safe distance from another person who is infected. It still can be quickly destroyed through the simple act of thoroughly washing one's hands. 

Yet in B.C. city after B.C. city, there were still plenty of examples of crowded restaurants and clubs remaining open, of packed beaches, and of people young and old not doing what is necessary to stop the spread of transmission — all as cases across the province doubled and tripled and quadrupled over the course of the week  

The lack of rain all week likely had something to do with it as well — as this reporter writes this, he can see large groups playing ball hockey and beach volleyball in downtown Vancouver's Creekside park and soccer in Andy Livingstone Park, to say nothing of a densely packed seawall.

"The vast majority of people and businesses … are complying with this, but there are people that are failing to comply," said Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart, explaining why he felt the need to enact the city's own state of emergency, days after he downplayed the immediate need for one. 

In the old guidelines, "there was not clarity of the order and understanding of what it meant for folks," said the city's general manager, Sadhu Johnston. 

Put bluntly, the government decided nuanced guidelines weren't working — so blunter language and orders had to be used.

Why no shelter-in-place order?

But given the change in the recommendations, and given how B.C. has gone from 64 cases on March 13 to 348 one week later, some are asking why Vancouver or the province haven't instituted the sort of shelter-in-place orders that many European countries and states in America have already adopted.

That isn't on the table — though it appears some staff in Vancouver would like it to be. 

"To have a shelter-in-place order is a big step, and we want to make sure we're in alignment with the province," said Reid. 

And the government believes it would be too hazardous to the economy and basic functioning of the province. 

"It sounds simple, but it's not actually simple," said Henry during Friday's news conference. 

"We do need things in our economy to continue to go, to continue to support us, to continue to bring us medications … it's a challenging message, I understand, but I don't think telling everyone to stay at home is going to help us," she said.

However, Health Minister Adrian Dix ended the conference with a slightly different message. 

"We need everyone to consider this, and have 100 per cent compliance," he said.  

Left unsaid was what would happen if there wasn't 100 per cent compliance.

But given the changes that have already happened in the last week, the health minister didn't need to.

If you have a COVID-19-related story we should pursue that affects British Columbians, please email us at impact@cbc.ca.