British Columbia

Visitors steal away to B.C.'s small towns, even as locals beg them to stay home

Visitors fleeing the big city for smaller B.C. towns are leaving locals feeling helpless, anxious about the virus arriving in communities that don't have the resources to handle an outbreak.

Tensions between locals and visitors reach fever pitch on the sunny Easter weekend

Passengers drive onto a BC Ferries vessel from Tsawwassen to the Southern Gulf Islands on Friday, after provincial officials urged the public to avoid all non-essential travel. (Chris Corday/CBC)

A firefighter in small-town Vancouver Island throws his hands in the air as one, two, then three ATVs peel down the road. A truck loaded with surfboards comes next. Then mountain bikes. Camping gear. Boat trailers.

Hundreds of kilometres away, the ferry terminal linking mainlanders to B.C.'s idyllic Southern Gulf Islands is busier than it should be. Everyone seems to have a second property that must be maintained this weekend, and no later, despite repeated pleas to stay home from dozens of officials across the province.

"The word got out pretty quickly," said Jane Wolverton, who has lived on Galiano Island for a decade. "Locals saw a stream of cars coming off the ferry, even Thursday."

Locals in remote communities across the province felt helpless Friday as visitors escaped the big city for quieter spaces, potentially carrying COVID-19 to sheltered areas that don't have the resources to handle a major outbreak. 

"We are not your respite. We are not your sanctuary," said Wolverton, 69.

"Our local doctor described it. [They said,] 'We're almost like a cruise ship.' We're surrounded by water. We're a small population. We're all here."

Jane Wolverton lives on B.C.'s Galiano Island. She says she and her neighbours are desperate for visitors to stay away during the COVID-19 outbreak. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

Galiano Island, one of the Southern Gulf Islands between the mainland and Vancouver Island, has a population of roughly 1,000 with a median age of about 59 years old. There is one part-time doctor and a nurse practitioner. There are no ventilators and anyone who is seriously ill has to be airlifted off the island.

Errant travellers could risk B.C.'s progress, officials say

Officials at virtually every level of government in B.C. have asked the public not to travel at all this weekend unless it is absolutely essential. Public health officials have said most people are doing their part, but the errant few could threaten the progress the province has made to bend its infection curve.

More than 80 per cent of COVID-19 cases in B.C. are concentrated in the Lower Mainland, while the remainder is split across the vast island, north and Interior regions.

A BC Ferries passenger, who declined to give his last name, said he was heading to Galiano Island for Easter Weekend to work on his second property. (Chris Corday/CBC)

Passengers heading to Galiano from the Tsawwassen ferry terminal said they believed the trip was OK because they were going straight to their second property.

"We don't interact with anybody outside of ourselves and our own property and we're far away from other people," said one passenger, who identified himself only as Rob.

He acknowledged locals' concerns, but said they weren't enough to cancel the trip.

"I'm not too worried. Bring in a helicopter to take us out [if we get sick]," he said.

The apparent crowding and a sold-out trip at the BC Ferries terminal Friday could be attributed to fewer sailings. The corporation slashed the number of sailings after ridership plummeted by 80 per cent in the wake of the outbreak.

Still, even if incorrigible travellers are to blame for the crowds, BC Ferries said it is not authorized to restrict travel.

"Any enforcement will need to be based on directive from the provincial government," read a tweet responding to criticism Friday.

Some locals have deflected out-of-towners as best they can. A grocery store in Port Renfrew, on western Vancouver Island, is refusing to serve anybody but locals.

"We don't have respirators, we don't have medical, other than our ambulance and first responders. It's a long ways to the hospital. It's all very remote, so we can't take a hit," said general manager Mike Conlin, with the Pacheedaht First Nation.

A highway sign near Tofino, B.C., is covered with a sign asking visitors to stay home on April 10, 2020. (Josie Osborne/Twitter)

William Toulmin with the Port Renfrew Volunteer Fire Department, hollered at the trio of ATVs this week, but couldn't do anything more.

"It's very frustrating. You sit here in a 15-minute period you can see dozens and dozens of vehicles going through here that aren't locals," he said.

Wolverton, the Galiano resident, said tourists will be welcomed back when the time is right.

"Now is just not the time, and I hope people will take that to heart," she said.

With files from Tina Lovgreen and CHEK News

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