Restrictions could be a hard hit to local tourism industry’s hopes for Victoria Day long weekend

By Steve Hubrecht
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Last week the provincial government banned non-essential travel outside of B.C. residents’ local health authority regions, a move that left those Columbia Valley residents concerned about rising COVID-19 numbers in B.C. relieved, but also left other local residents who rely on out-of-town visitors for business or who were looking forward to Victoria Day long weekend vacations away voicing frustration.

B.C. Solicitor General Mike Farnworth announced the restrictions on Friday, April 23. For Columbia Valley residents, they mean staying within the Interior and Northern Health Authority regions for anything other than essential reasons.

“I’m restricting non-essential travel into or out of all health authority regions effective immediately,” said Farnworth, later noting “this is a legal order, under the emergency program act.”

Farnworth cited the rising number of COVID-19, said it was time to restrict non-essential travel in a formal way and outlined that anybody caught breaking the rules can be fined $575.

He noted that the legal order applies to health authority regions, ideally, people should be following provincial health office guidelines (which are different from the legal order and do not carry fines) by staying within their local community as much as possible.

“While the order puts legal limits only on travel between regional zones, the provincial health officer’s guidance remains unchanged throughout B.C.: everyone should continue to stay within their local community – essential travel only,” read a provincial government press release, outlining that travel for school, work, commercial transportation of goods, returning to a principal residence, for child care, for health care, or to assist somebody receiving health care is considered essential and is still permissible.

The legal order came into effect on Friday, April 23 and lasts until Tuesday, May 25, the day after the Victoria long weekend finishes. 

The press release also said the provincial government is working to put up highways signage and to increase signage on the border with Alberta; is working with B.C. Ferries to restrict non-essential vehicle passage, deter non-essential bookings and limit sailings; and is working with the tourism and accommodation industry to encourage all operators and businesses to support the order by declining new bookings from outside their regional zones and cancelling existing bookings from outside their regional zones. The government said it is also working with B.C. Parks to inform the public about restriction and refunding bookings; and with police departments on establishing enforcement measures in the coming days.

“In the coming days, the province will work with police to establish periodic road checks at key travel corridors during times associated with leisure travel to remind travellers of the order,” read the press release, later adding that “these road checks will be set up near ferry terminals and on highway corridors that connect different regions of the province.”

The restrictions have considerable implications for the Columbia Valley, where tourism is a major part of the economy and many businesses typically see a good deal of revenue on the Victoria Day long weekend. 

“Our economy obviously depends on that farther trade, with Alberta and other places. But right now, with the pandemic, we have to think a little differently. We’ve got to flatten the curve of rising numbers (of COVID-19 cases) that we’ve been seeing,” Invermere mayor Al Miller told the Pioneer. “This is not ‘don’t come Alberta’. This is ‘everybody needs to stay in one place’. That means everybody, no matter where you are from. It’s not meant to single out any one place.”

Miller noted that tighten up now, and cutting COVID-19 number across the province, means a sacrifice now, but one that could help lead to a good summer, both health-wise and business-wise, in a few months time.

“I desperately want us to have a great summer. If we stay at home now, get this under control, it will be a big step down the road to having a good summer,” said Miller. “It’s difficult. Nobody likes it. Some people are having it rougher than others. We’re all in this together, but it’s not equal. It’s really hitting some people here in the valley hard, and they are struggling. Financially, emotionally and in terms of mental health. But we’ve got to get through this. Now is the time to think of others.”

Columbia River-Revelstoke MLA Doug Clovechok told the Pioneer on Friday, April, 23 that he sympathizes with local residents and businesses frustrated by the vagueness of the order.

“It’s added more confusion than clarity,” said Clovechok, noting that at first, the government said there would be random roadside checks, and then later said there would be checks, but not random checks; that there is confusion regarding police’s role in enforcing the restrictions; and that his office has had plenty of questions about interprovincial travel, which he pointed out, as far as he understands it, is still under the same guidelines as it has been for the past year.

“It’s so vague I don’t even know how to answer the questions,” said Clovechok. “It’s unfair to the public. It’s unfair to businesses. They’re asking details about how they should go about cancelling bookings? Is there support for refunding cancelled books? They’re asking these questions, but there’s been no clarity.”

Clovechok suggested those frustrated should call the Premier’s office, if not to get an answer, then at least to make clear the level of frustration within the local business community.

Also on Friday, April 23, B.C. Minister of Tourism, Arts, Culture and Sport Melanie Mark and a group of provincial tourism officials including Indigenous Tourism BC chair Brenda Baptiste, Tourism Industry Association of BC chief executive officer Walt Judas, BC Hotel Association president Ingrid Jarrett, and Destination BC interim president Richard Porges released a joint statement asking all British Columbians to stay local unless it is absolutely essential.

“The many people and businesses in the tourism and hospitality industry in B.C. need each of us to follow the rules without exception. Their livelihood depends on us all doing our part now so some travel can safely resume this summer and set these businesses on the road to recovery,” read the statement.