British Columbia·Analysis

B.C. government once again changes its pandemic policies in a matter of hours

At 7:20 a.m. on Tuesday, Health Minister Adrian Dix told CBC the province was "absolutely considering" a mask mandate. At 9:45 a.m., Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry announced masks would once again be mandatory in all public places.

If you struggled to keep up with all the new policies announced the last two days, you aren’t alone

Premier John Horgan and Health Minister Adrian Dix look on as Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry speaks Monday about the COVID-19 vaccine cards set to be introduced in mid-September. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito)

The last question put to Health Minister Adrian Dix on The Early Edition on Tuesday was a simple one: "Why are you not bringing back the mask mandate?" asked Stephen Quinn. 

"We did last Friday through Interior Health. The masks are still recommended in indoor public spaces. And we are absolutely considering what you're suggesting," said Dix.  

Well, that was at 7:20 a.m. 

At 9:45 a.m., Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry announced that masks would once again be mandatory in all public places throughout the province, halfway through a press conference that was mostly about COVID-19 policies in schools and universities

Factor in the announcement of a vaccine card the day before, and it was a deluge of announcements in less than 24 hours, the government once again changing course after weeks of saying present measures were sufficient. 

It essentially gives B.C. a new strategy to combat the fourth wave of the pandemic in which the current rate of vaccination seems unlikely to stop transmission without additional measures. Active cases are up 746 per cent in a month and hospitalizations, more importantly, up 207 per cent.

Most public health experts who have tracked B.C.'s pandemic have argued renewed mask mandates and further public health measures are necessary in the face of an uncertain fall

But the announcements since Monday left many struggling to understand how all the pieces fit together.

Why no school mandate?

Take, for example, the lack of a vaccine mandate in schools and universities.

If transmission is dangerous enough that people need to be vaccinated to enter a restaurant, why can a classroom — filled with anywhere from dozens to hundreds of people — be a place where vaccines are voluntary? 

"These are areas where social gatherings occur, and social gatherings are a significant driver of transmission," said Dix in an interview with CBC News after the announcement, explaining where people will require vaccines to enter.

"Again, these are non-essential activities … I think most people saw the list and thought it makes sense."

A new provincial health officer order requires people to provide proof of vaccination before they can participate in a broad range of social, recreational, and discretionary events and activities. The cards will not be required for grocery stores and other retail settings. They also won't be necessary to enter a place of worship. But restaurants, gyms, movie theatres, and even weddings will need proof of vaccination. To explain it all, we were joined by Health Minister Adrian Dix. 12:09

In other words, the government won't force people to be vaccinated to take part in what they consider essential parts of living, which includes getting groceries, going to school and going to work. At the same time, they're fine with organizations, including public institutions like universities, putting in vaccine mandates for employees. 

The only exception to this at the moment, said Dix, are employees in long-term care and assisted living homes, because those are places where the risk from infection remains the highest. 

But that may be expanded. 

"We're obviously looking very seriously at acute care as well," he said. "It's that assessment of risk that's important."

Bringing people along

If the public thought the announcements over the past two days were almost too much to process with plenty of unanswered questions, so did many reporters. Most of the time when the B.C. government makes a large policy shift, there are technical briefings before the announcement so media can get clarification on complex questions. 

That didn't happen with any of the announcements over the last two days, adding to the confusion. 

"When everything is scary and frenetic, you work to have that certainty and continuity and feel like you're really bringing people along with your decision-making," said Katy Merrifield, a communication director to B.C.'s former premier Christy Clark and Alberta Premier Jason Kenney. 

Merrifield said she didn't want to attack Henry's policies for reducing transmission, but said it was another situation where the government seemed to deny a policy was needed one day and then put it in place the next.  

Dix denied he was disingenuous when he said B.C. was "seriously considering" a mask mandate in the morning, admitting the decision had already been made. It was up to Henry to deliver it, he said. 

At the same time, he said Henry hadn't been dishonest at Monday's press conference when she avoided directly answering a question on the mask mandate, because she and senior health officials only determined it was needed later that afternoon after analyzing the most recent batch of transmission data. 

"There's always going to be a point when you move from the consideration to the decision, and that point was today," said Dix. 

B.C. reinstates mask mandate for indoor spaces

28 days ago
1:10
B.C. Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry says a mask mandate is needed as we move into the fall and spend more time indoors. 1:10

Whatever the exact timeline, the B.C. government announced its framework for the next several months in two days. There will be plenty of questions about enforcement and legal challenges, along with choices by individual businesses and universities. 

But when asked if he wanted to say anything else about the new measures and the questions around them, Dix focused on the need to get vaccinated. 

"I think it's important in this time when we have very much a pandemic of those who aren't vaccinated," said Dix, "that we take every step to improve and increase vaccinations."

It's been a clear, consistent message on vaccines. 

Whether it addresses all the other questions people have about the government's response is another question.   

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