B.C. declares public health emergency on COVID-19 as three more deaths reported

VICTORIA — British Columbia declared a public health emergency Tuesday after reporting three new COVID-19 deaths and 83 more cases of the virus.

The province now has had seven fatalities during the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Dr. Bonnie Henry, the provincial health officer, ordered the immediate closure of bars and nightclubs, saying they can’t meet social distancing requirements needed to fight the community spread of the novel coronavirus.

Restaurants and cafes that can’t adapt to social distancing must also close or switch to take-out service only, she said.

Henry, who called social distancing a second line of defence, estimated the actual distance from the nearest person as between one metre and two metres. She described it as a fingertip to fingertip distance from the closest person.

“We have taken the extra step of declaring a public health emergency,” she said at a news conference.

“This is the tool that we need now. This declaration of an emergency enables me to be faster, more streamlined and nimble in the things we need to do.”

Health Minister Adrian Dix said the declaration gives Henry powers to make immediate verbal orders.

“The provincial health officer can also compel any and all peace officers to enforce her verbal orders,” said Dix.

As health minister, Dix said the declaration also allows him to amend regulations without the consent of the cabinet and make changes to the Public Health Act without the legislature’s approval.

The public health emergency comes less than 24 hours after B.C. cancelled thousands of elective and scheduled surgeries to increase hospital space for acute care patients.

Dix offered condolences to the seven families who have lost loved ones to the pandemic.

“We, along with everyone else, grieve with these families,” he said. “This is truly another sombre day.”

Henry said six of the deaths stem from the Lynn Valley Care Centre in North Vancouver. A man in his 80s also died on Monday in hospital in the Fraser Health region.

The province took steps to try to prevent the spread of the virus on Tuesday, announcing that school is out indefinitely. And Premier John Horgan promised help for businesses and workers affected by the pandemic.

Education Minister Rob Fleming said his ministry is working with school districts and teachers on a plan to continue learning for students from kindergarten to Grade 12, but not in classrooms.

“We have to take action today to protect our students and staff,” Fleming told a news conference with Horgan and Finance Minister Carole James.

Fleming said the suspension of classes will not affect students who are scheduled to graduate this spring. He said all students who are on course to graduate from Grade 12, and those progressing to the next grade, will do so.

It isn’t known when students will return to school, Fleming added.

“We’re in a fast moving situation. We will return to regular school life down the road.”

Horgan said a provincial relief plan will be finalized in the next day or two to help companies and workers deal with COVID-19.

He said financial security, the education system and co-operation among governments are three top concerns for people as the pandemic response unfolds.

“It’s a go big or go home environment,” Horgan said. “It seems to me this is a crisis situation and we need an appropriate response.”

He said the province is waiting for the final details of the federal government’s plan expected on Wednesday before it releases its approach.

The premier said there will be financial support for businesses and changes to the Employment Standards Act to prevent workers from being laid off if they are required to stay at home to self-isolate.

“We want to make sure that no one loses their job by doing the right thing,” Horgan said.

Horgan also pressed the federal government to ensure it changes employment insurance regulations to help workers, especially the self-employed and people working in the service industry.

Finance Minister Carole James, who introduced a surplus budget last month, said COVID-19 will hit B.C.’s bottom line.

“It is likely we will have a deficit,” she said. “There’s no question about that.”

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