Opinion: Public rage at scofflaws brings B.C. travel restrictions

Opinion: As recently as Friday, the NDP was rejecting calls for a clampdown on travel

Vancouver Sun April 20, 2021

VICTORIA — On the day before the annual budget is tabled in the legislature, B.C. governments traditionally put the finance minister in the spotlight to build anticipation of spending announcements to come.

But there was Premier John Horgan Monday, presiding at a media conference where he announced a new round of pandemic-fighting restrictions to take the province through to the end of May.

No more recreational vehicle bookings on B.C. Ferries. No more extra sailings on holiday weekends. Ferry reservations screened for essential travel only.

Random checks on the highways to discourage travel among the five health regions. Cautionary signs at the Alberta border reminding tourists from other provinces that they aren’t wanted here just now.

Government enlisting the tourist industry “to eliminate bookings from people outside of a particular area.”

And all of this backed up by the threat of formal orders if it can’t be accomplished voluntarily.

“This is done with a heavy heart,” Horgan told reporters. “But it’s done with a resolute purpose that, together, for this next five weeks, we can get to the end.

Details to come later this week, according to the premier, who struggled at times to explain precisely how the new restrictions would work.

“We wanted to have this discussion today so people understood we’re not going to follow other provincial leads and bring forward proposals that can’t be enforced,” he added in apparent reference to the botched rollout by Ontario premier Doug Ford.

This by way of explanation for the timing of the decision to upstage Finance Minister Selina Robinson on the eve of the provincial budget.

He also said the New Democrats do not want to lunge into these issues. But it was hardly a lunge.

Horgan has been talking about crafting travel restrictions since the beginning of the year. Two months ago, he suggested the necessary plans and protocols were already in place.

Throughout the intervening weeks, the New Democrats repeatedly discounted the need for formal restrictions and downplayed the province’s ability to do anything in any event.

Government supporters scoffed earlier this month when Green Leader Sonia Furstenau called for checkpoints on the highways and restrictions on non-essential ferry travel “to get in front of this third wave” before “this third wave gets on top of us.”

Health Minister Adrian Dix was still scoffing as recently as Friday. “We need a ferry system and the idea that we could shut it down or dramatically limit it I think wouldn’t be in the interests of Vancouver Island,” he told host Gregor Craigie on CBC’s On the Island.

At one point, Dix even suggested that travel restrictions would be un-Canadian: “We don’t live in that kind of state here in B.C.”

Horgan professed “absolute outrage” at the out-of-towners flooding tourist spots on Vancouver Island over the Easter holiday weekend.

At the same time, he also suggested he was powerless to do anything to stop it: “What do we do? Arrest them?”

“We can restrict ferry travel,” Horgan conceded. “We’ve done that in the past, but not necessarily to good effect.”

What changed in the interval between those comments on April 7 and Monday’s press conference?

“We never said we couldn’t do it,” Horgan insisted Monday. “We said it would be logistically challenging, and it is and remains so.”

Logistics had nothing to do with it. The timing was prompted by the government’s grudging realization that it had to do something in the face of growing public outrage over the spectacle of so many rule breakers.

There was also the impact of the rising COVID-19 case count in hospitals, critical care units and especially on front-line doctors, nurses and other health care workers.

In their share of Monday’s briefing, Health Minister Dix and Dr. Bonnie Henry detailed the mounting evidence of a system in danger of being overwhelmed by the more transmissible variants.

While much of the presentation was charts, graphs and data, Dr. Henry had a catch in her voice in sharing the heartbreaking news of the death of B.C.’s youngest COVID-19 patient, just under two years old.

Persuasive as Monday’s presentation was in arguing for the restrictions, still it must have been galling for Horgan to have to do it on the eve of his vaunted postelection budget.

The budget was delayed for two full months because Horgan called a snap election back in September, putting the government into caretaker mode during the second wave of the pandemic.

From the beginning of this year, he’s been building expectations about a budget and legislation agenda that would position “B.C. to come back stronger on the other side of the pandemic.”

All the while the government has down played and/or disregarded the mounting evidence of the third wave that would prove to be worse than the second.

“We know the light is there at the end of the tunnel,” the premier declared in his first press conference of the new year. On throne speech day last week, the media release from his office claimed that “the finish line” was already in sight.

He was still on that theme Monday. “We’re so close we can taste it,” he said. “But we need people to follow these rules to the end.”

B.C. might have been there already, if Horgan had not taken a premature victory lap and instead acted sooner and more decisively to contain the third wave.

vpalmer@postmedia.com 

Comments

Postmedia is committed to maintaining a lively but civil forum for discussion and encourage all readers to share their views on our articles. Comments may take up to an hour for moderation before appearing on the site. We ask you to keep your comments relevant and respectful. We have enabled email notifications—you will now receive an email if you receive a reply to your comment, there is an update to a comment thread you follow or if a user you follow comments. Visit our community guidelines for more information and details on how to adjust your email settings.