British Columbia·Analysis

B.C. bets that people don't need government hand-holding in next phase of COVID-19 fight

First, British Columbia locked down the province without having an official lockdown. Now, it will reopen without having an official reopen date. 

Minimal amount of edicts will make some nervous — but B.C.’s approach has always been different

B.C. Premier John Horgan, centre, Minister of Health Adrian Dix, left, and Chief Medical Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, right, announce the province's strategy for the next phase of the COVID-19 recovery. (Mike McArthur/CBC)

Can five million people collectively make decisions that keep an entire province safe from a global virus?

The government of British Columbia is counting on it. 

Premier John Horgan announced the government's "go-forward strategy" in containing COVID-19 for the long-term on Wednesday, and like the previous containment strategy, it will be unique. 

First, British Columbia locked down the province without having an official lockdown. Now, it will reopen without having an official reopen date. 

Instead, it will be a phased-in approach, with guidelines focusing on educating people and companies on how to keep people safe in different contexts, rather than a detailed set of regulations for individuals and specific businesses. 

That isn't to say there won't be rules: different industries will have to work with WorkSafeBC to come up with specialized reopening plans that meet requirements set out by Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry. 

But the onus will be on British Columbians to collectively make choices that will limit regular interactions to below 60 per cent of normal — thereby preventing a resurgence of the virus. 

It fits in with the province's strategy ever since its first case was announced 100 days ago.

"People will have to make choices," said Horgan at one point, in regards to how people will have to choose how large to expand their social circles (two to six guests now officially endorsed at any one time) or how many family members to hug.

But people will be making those choices because the government made its own choice: giving British Columbians lots of leeway, for better or worse. 

Phased-in approach

The province is confident in its strategy because, essentially, it has so far worked. 

There are now fewer than 20 people occupying an ICU bed in B.C. because of Covid 19. The number of active confirmed cases in northern B.C. is in single-digits, and Vancouver Island and Interior Health are not far behind. 

And while there have been outbreaks in recent weeks — including a prison in Mission and poultry processing plants — the province has been able to quickly trace cases and prevent community transmission. 

All that — and the lowest deaths per capita of any province or U.S. state with more than five million people — came without issuing a shelter-in-place order or the widespread closure of industries.

However, a very large number of companies and contractors shut down voluntarily. 

By not having set start dates, it will inevitably create a scattershot phased-in approach, with some confusion and frustration as some sectors ramp up quickly, and some sectors take longer (to say nothing of industries like nightclubs and large concerts, which are delayed indefinitely).  

"It won't be the flipping of a switch. We'll be proceeding carefully bit by bit. One step at a time," said Horgan.

"The only way [businesses] will survive is when people walk through their doors, they are confident they will be well."

Everyone has their own comfort level

But the bigger question may not be around businesses, but social cohesion.

With everyone allowed to chart their own path, each person will have their own comfort level. That goes both for themselves, and what activities others do that makes them worried. 

And with the May long weekend being the general time when B.C. has indicated things can reopen — including provincial parks on May 14 — there will be people on ferries and people in parks.

There will almost certainly be people who behave in a way Bonnie Henry considers unsafe. And there will likely be many more people behaving in ways that trigger debate among friends, family and passersby who may interpret the words of Henry and Horgan differently.

It's why Horgan spent a decent amount of his opening statement on Wednesday trying to assuage fears. 

"It's OK to be concerned. It's understandable to be concerned," he said. "We're going to do everything we can to keep you safe." 

If the province's plan works and hospitalizations continue to be in the low single digits, B.C.'s unique approach will have resulted in much fewer deaths and much more freedom than anywhere in North America or western Europe. 

And if it backfires, the effect will be second-guessing the government's approach and a return to conditions that have caused so much strain on people's mental health and economic well-being. 

No pressure, in other words. But a situation the province says it's ready for. 

"British Columbia has been charting its own course from the beginning," said Horgan.  "We've been successful, and need to continue that success." 

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