British Columbia·Analysis

The PNE may be cancelled — but there's optimism your summer won't be

There’s a number of emerging signals that things in B.C. might begin looking more “normal” over the next few months. 

Decreasing case counts are important, but so is emerging data out of the U.K. and Israel

Two people walk through Playland at the PNE in Vancouver on July 10, 2020. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

In the early days of the pandemic, the phrase "out of an abundance of caution" was often used as people accepted shutting down large parts of their lives.

That same philosophy is now guiding festivals figuring out their summer plans.

"An in-person traditional style fair … was simply not possible," said Laura Ballance, spokesperson for the PNE, which announced Wednesday it would be cancelled for 2021. 

The annual date for the fair is about 100 days away — but Ballance said with Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry saying "big events" were "not likely" this year, the PNE made an early decision to pull the plug.

"You have a go, no-go moment in order to ramp up. We are at the time where we would need to start making commitments to suppliers and contractors."

The PNE's decision came a day after Bard on the Beach announced it would stick with digital-only offerings this summer as well. 

But while large events where hundreds of people gather at once may need to be cancelled for a second summer, there's a number of emerging signals that things in B.C. might begin looking more "normal" over the next few months. 

Cases down

"I do think the signs are good for August," said Sarah Otto, an evolutionary biologist at UBC.

Otto is part of the B.C. COVID 19 Modelling Group, a group of researchers from SFU and UBC who earlier this year warned hospitalizations and daily case numbers could explode in B.C. if further restrictions weren't imposed. 

And while the province resisted implementing new restrictions for most of March — and paid the price with hospitalizations and active cases doubling in a matter of weeks — they eventually did put in new public health orders, and pandemic numbers have gone down rapidly ever since.

More specifically, active cases, the rolling average of new cases and people under active monitoring are all down by more than 30 per cent from their third wave peak, with no sign of slowing down. 

But the second reason modellers see cause for optimism is witnessing what has happened in countries where the majority of the population has received a vaccine shot, a mark B.C. will likely pass at some point in late May.

Specifically, daily cases in Israel and the United Kingdom are down by more than 90 per cent since their peaks in January and have continued to go down even as restrictions have lifted. 

"The signs are good," said Otto.

"Now mind you, they're not fully opened up, there are still a little bit of restrictions or layers of protection, and I think we're going to see that this summer too."

Turning point in July?

Both Otto and Daniel Coombs, another member of the modelling group that has helped the government with its projections, say there's a few things they will be watching for to see if B.C. can be in a similar situation come June and July.  

One is whether any new variants emerge that are more resistant to vaccines than previous ones have been. Another is further data in more jurisdictions on the efficiency of one vaccine shot months after it's delivered. 

If that provides good news, the biggest question becomes what percentage of British Columbians need at least one vaccine shot before restrictions can start to be lifted without a large risk of cases once again surging. 

"Is it that 50, 60 per cent range?" said Coombs. "Add three weeks [for the vaccine to take effect] and that puts you somewhere in early July."

In other words, based on available evidence, it's possible that by the end of July case counts are low enough and enough people are vaccinated for summer activities to look very similar to previous years, so long as you aren't gathering with several hundred strangers.

It's nowhere near the level of certainty required for large organizations like the PNE to make plans, and both Coombs and Otto believe the government will err on the side of caution in lifting restrictions. 

But it's more optimism than many have had in quite some time. 

"Just get vaccinated when you have the chance," said Coombs. "It's just so critical at this point." 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Justin McElroy

@j_mcelroy

Justin is the Municipal Affairs Reporter for CBC Vancouver, covering local political stories throughout British Columbia.

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