Coastal communities call for travel restrictions as visitors trickle in
Health-care centres aren't equipped to handle COVID-19 outbreak, says Central Coast Regional District
Leaders in small communities along B.C.'s Central Coast are calling on the province to restrict travel into the region, fearing that visitors will introduce COVID-19.
Officials say there's been an influx of visitors travelling into the region. Health-care centres in communities near Bella Bella aren't equipped to handle the coronavirus outbreak, according to the Central Coast Regional District.
For example, the lone hospital in Bella Bella only has one ventilator, said director Daniel Bertrand.
"We don't have health-care resources to handle an outbreak, and we're seeing people coming to their summer homes. We're at the start of our tourism season," said Bertrand.
"We're seeing RVs coming down the hill into Bella Coola, people travelling by yacht, even from as far away as Washington state," he added. "It's very easily noticeable in a small town when you seen an Alberta licence plate, a New York licence plate or a red sports car drive by a farm."
The district's travel restriction order was removed by the province when Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth suspended all local states of emergency (except for the City of Vancouver) last week.
It has since been calling on the province to prohibit non-essential travel into the region, largely out of concerns for a vulnerable population.
"Sixty-five per cent of our population in the regional district is Indigenous, and the vast majority of Indigenous language speakers are senior citizens," said Bertrand. "And they're really the national treasures of the First Nations in the region. And they disproportionately live in overcrowded housing and are susceptible COVID-19."
Four Central Coast First Nations — Nuxalk, Oweekeno, Kitasoo-Xai'Xais and Heiltsuk — have implemented travel restrictions on their own, including a checkpoint on Highway 20. The province has not taken any action against them.
Coastal communities urge distance
A swath of other communities along the central and south coast are also asking visitors to stay away, but haven't gone as far as to ask the province for a travel restriction.
In March, Tofino issued a plea to vacationers not to visit, also fearing a stressed medical system. Mayor Josie Osborne said most have been respectful but a few have trickled in.
"There's probably a very, very small handful of operators — it's not unlawful to accept a visitor right now, but it really isn't the best decision for our community," sad Osborne.
The population of Tofino generally triples once the spring tourism season hits.
Leaders in the Gulf Islands have also asked tourists to steer clear.
Destination B.C. vice president Maya Lange says communities that rely heavily on tourism are taking the pandemic seriously.
"Tourism is a $20 billion industry. It employs about 167,000 people, and there's about 19,000 tourism businesses. So it's extremely painful for the entire industry," she said.
"Our number one priority is making sure we can flatten the curve as quickly as possible so we can get back out to exploring British Columbia again," she said.