The City of Prince George, B.C., is attempting to clarify who is in charge of interpreting and enforcing provincial health orders after a winter market shut down following a visit from a local bylaw officer — despite the local health authority having given its approval.
Alice Sigurdson runs the Hart Winter Market, a weekend craft and bake sale showcasing local vendors.
She worked with a Northern Health officer to make sure she was following all of the province's health orders for markets, including physical distancing and requiring everyone to wear masks indoors.
So she was surprised on Saturday when a city bylaw officer showed up warning her she could face a $2,300 fine if rules were violated.
"He said maybe the police would come in on Sunday and fine us all," Sigurdson said. "I felt upset and really stunned."
Fearful of the warning, Sigurdson opted to shut the market down on Sunday, unclear as to whether she was allowed to proceed or not. Calls to the city went unanswered, as well — until the issue came up at Monday night's council meeting.
During a discussion of how the province's latest health guidelines were impacting city operations, Coun. Brian Skakun asked about the market and whether bylaw officers had the authority to shut things down.
"Bylaw [officers] can educate and inform, but where event organizers are not showing that compliance by law, they may pass the file off to the RCMP or Northern Health for further action if those organizations deem it necessary," said Adam Davey, the city's manager of community services. "So to be clear, bylaw services does not have the authority to shut events down or issue tickets."
Skakun then asked why a bylaw officer showed up to issue a warning to a market that was moving forward in compliance with Northern Health guidelines.
"Bylaw response is based on a complaint-driven process," said acting city manager Walter Babicz. "When a complaint is received... [our role] is to go out and provide education, and my understanding is that is exactly what occurred."
Coun. Kyle Sampson said the confusion highlighted the challenges facing cities when the province issues new public health orders, "often late in the afternoon" and local authorities have to scramble to interpret and adapt to them.
It's a problem other organizations have pointed out, as well.
Marital arts and dance studios have been waiting for clarification on how or even if they will be allowed to carry on operations under the newest health orders, with some opening only to discover they weren't technically allowed to, and many businesses have complained about the province's pattern of issuing orders verbally but waiting days to update the written guidelines.
Following the Hart Winter Market incident, the city and Northern Health set up a liaison officer so they can quickly communicate when confusion arises.
As for Sigurdson, she says she is "upset and stunned" that someone apparently "snitched" on her but plans to reopen again this coming weekend.
And she plans to continue to make sure everyone stays safe.
"I'm not a spring chicken," she said. "I wear my mask and I make everybody else wear their masks."
Tap the link below to listen to Andrew Kurjata's conversation with Alice Sigurdson on Daybreak North: