Province closes Whistler-Blackcomb, enacts three-week COVID-19 ‘circuit breaker’ restrictions

Province announces new COVID-19 restrictions for a three-week period as new COVID-19 cases rise dramatically in B.C.

Skiers and snowboarders gather for lunch at Mackenzie Outpost at Revelstoke Mountain Resort on Mar. 13, 2021. Photo: Aaron Orlando/Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine

In the face of rapidly rising new COVID-19 cases in B.C. driven by more transmissible variants of concern, and after a weekend of withering criticism from expert commentators who felt Provincial Health Officer (PHO) Dr. Bonnie Henry had sent the wrong message last week easing some restrictions, provincial health authorities have pulled the rip cord, enacting a host of new COVID-19 restrictions for a “circuit breaker” three-week period lasting until April 19.

B.C. saw 2,518 new cases of COVID-19 over the previous three days, including a new record high of 936 on Saturday. Six more people have died. There were 156 new cases in Interior Health over that period, an uptick.

The new and amended restrictions are listed below in this story, but they include closure of indoor dining, indoor adult group fitness of any kind, a reversal on limited indoor religious gatherings, and revised mask rules for students that extends mask wearing to all students down to Grade 4.

Premier encourages young people not to ‘blow it’

In the Mar. 29 briefing, which was bumped up by two hours at the last minute, a sign of the new urgency the B.C. government is placing on the shift, a stern Premier John Horgan stated something that critics have been saying for months: the press briefings aren’t reaching young people, who are a key factor in driving transmissions in the province.

B.C. Premier John Horgan. Photo: B.C. government photo

“We cannot blow it now,” exclaimed Horgan, who said the province had come so far and was advancing with vaccinations, so now is not the time to disregard health rules. “The cohort from 20 to 39 are not paying as much attention to these broadcasts, and quite frankly are putting the rest of us in a quite challenging situation.”

After over a year of COVID-19 every day, many have simply tuned out the daily numbers and noise, not to mention the B.C. press conferences, but significant policy changes like this do attract public attention. Will the message be more effective this time?

Conversely, has the B.C. government done enough to target the demographics they now acknowledge they aren’t getting through to? In early February, facing pressure over high COVID-19 at ski resorts like Whistler-Blackcomb and Big White, the provincial government announced a messaging “blitz” aimed at ski resort employees and visitors.

The move managed to take the heat off the PHO and Premier, who had been hammered on issues of inter-provincial travel and lack of any practical enforcement of travel recommendations.

Publicly at least, there has been little evidence of this blitz that we can recall.

Whistler-Blackcomb closed: Will some skiers now come to Revelstoke for their Easter hurrah?

The PHO announced that Whistler-Blackcomb is closed as of midnight tonight through April 19, noting an uptick of variants of concern and new cases there.

The announcement immediately led to concern that Revelstoke will experience a bigger wave of visitors for the Easter weekend, potentially triggering more transmission.

“We have also seen transmission directly connected to travel between communities and remind everyone travel is limited to essential travel only — for work or medical reasons,” the province said in its weekly statement. “If you or anyone in your family develops any signs of illness — especially as children return from spring break — you must stay home from work or school and arrange to get tested immediately.”

Although non-essential travel advisories have been in place since the rise of the second wave in November, and international travel to Revelstoke has been severely curtailed, there has been significant regional and national visitorship to Revelstoke throughout the season. Essentially, it has been a honour system with no enforcement since the start.

Revelstoke Mountain Resort’s final day of the 2021 winter season is April 5.

PHO acknowledges exponential growth

“We have seen the start of exponential growth,” Dr. Bonnie Henry said at the Mar. 29 press conference. “Gathering indoors is what is the greatest risk to all of us right now.”

She said that transmissions happening in places like restaurants and fitness facilities are being driven by initial transmissions at private gatherings.

Over the past several days, authorities have warned that cases are affecting young people more severely than initial infections.

Interior Health starts to see uptick, B.C. at record numbers

The new cases in B.C. are driven by high numbers in Vancouver Coastal and Fraser Health. One of the anomalies we’ve reported on over the past two weeks has been that the trend hadn’t showed up yet in Interior Health.

It is now apparent, but still behind the provincial trend.

This side by side comparison shows the seven-day moving average of new cases in B.C. at left, and the same average for Interior Health, at right. The new variant-driven wave has increased provincial numbers to the same high results as the November 2020 peak. Interior Health hadn’t seen the same trend until the past week, but now the start of the latest wave is apparent. Image: B.C. Centre for Disease Control image

The higher numbers are driven in part by new variants of concern.

There have been 321 new confirmed COVID-19 cases that are variants of concern in B.C., for a total of 2,233 cases. Of the total cases, 413 are active and the remaining people have recovered. This includes 1,915 cases of the B.1.1.7 (U.K.) variant, 48 cases of the B.1.351 (South Africa) variant and 270 cases of the P.1 (Brazil) variant.

New restrictions announced on Mar. 29 in place until April 19

Here are the new restrictions:

-For restaurants, bars and pubs, all food and liquor-serving premises must only provide take-out or delivery service. Dine-in service is prohibited, except for outdoor patios. People dining on patios should do so with their immediate household or core bubble.

-Indoor, adult group fitness activities of any kind are also paused. Gyms and fitness centres are restricted to individual or one-on-one activities only i.e. one-on-one personal training.

-The previously announced class variance for limited indoor worship services has been suspended. Outdoor worship services under the current variance may continue.

-Travel continues to be limited to essential travel, work or medical reasons only. For those who have travelled outside their health region, if you or anyone in your family develops any signs of illness, you must stay home from work, school or daycare, and arrange to get tested immediately.

-Whistler-Blackcomb ski resort is closed through to April 19, 2021, to address and prevent community spread related to non-essential travel.

-All workers are strongly encouraged to work from home, where possible.

-Public health guidance for schools has also been amended to support and encourage students down to Grade 4 to wear masks while at school.

Aaron Orlando is a Revelstoke-based journalist who serves as creative director of and Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine. He's been on the news beat in Revelstoke for the past 14 years, serving in senior editorial roles. If you have or call/text him at 250-814-8710.