British Columbia

What is a public health emergency and what does it mean for B.C.?

B.C.'s provincial health officer has declared a public health emergency in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. So, what does the declaration mean?

Dr. Bonnie Henry now has power to issue verbal orders that are immediately enforceable

B.C. provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry declared a public health emergency in the province on March 17. (Province of British Columbia/Flickr)

B.C.'s provincial health officer has declared a public health emergency in response to the COVID-19 pandemic that has sickened more than 230 people across the province and led to seven deaths as of March 18.

This is the second time the provincial health officer has made the declaration to exercise these emergency powers, according to the province. 

The first came in 2016, in response to the opioid poisoning crisis.

So, what does it mean when there's a public health emergency in B.C.?

In practical terms, the declaration under the Public Health Act gives the provincial health officer the power to issue verbal orders that are immediately enforceable. An example would be Tuesday's order for venues such as bars and clubs to shut down across the province. 

Dr. Bonnie Henry, as provincial health officer, can also "compel any and all peace officers" in the province to enforce her verbal orders.

WATCH | B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix explains the powers of a public health emergency:

B.C. health minister explains what a public health emergency means

2 years ago
Duration 1:16
Health Minister Adrian Dix says a public health emergency gives expanded powers to the provincial health officer

The declaration means Henry can now authorize health-care personnel to do their work anywhere in the province. Usually, health-care professionals only work within the regional health authority in which they are hired.

"This declaration of an emergency enables me to be faster, more streamlined and nimble in the things we need to do," Henry said during a news conference Tuesday.

The legislation also gives B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix the power to amend regulations without the consent of the cabinet. Dix can also make changes to the Public Health Act without the legislature's consent.

On Tuesday, Henry ordered businesses with primary liquor licences, such as bars, pubs and nightclubs, to shut down as they are unable to meet the province's requirements of social distancing — keeping customers at least one to two metres away from one another.

Henry also said restaurants and cafes that cannot maintain social distancing will need to move to take-out and delivery only.

She pointed out safety measures will vary depending on the type of business and it may mean enhanced cleaning, or limiting occupancy inside a store depending on its size.

Henry said industrial work sites should be looking at making sure employees are not congregating in areas during lunches and breaks. She suggested measures need to be in place on transportation systems, for example, the number of people on skytrain cars could be reduced or the number of people on buses could be regulated.

She said employees in all businesses should be allowed to clean their hands and keep surfaces around them clean.

"We took a number of extraordinary measures in the last few days to try and do everything that we can to try and stop the transmission of this virus in our communities and flatten out the curve over the next 7 to 10 days is the critical time." said Henry.

The health officer has also prohibited any gatherings of 50 or more people, saying any such events planned in coming days should be cancelled.

Health officials are asking British Columbians to work from home, stay home as much as possible and practise social distancing in order to slow the spread of the virus.

Henry said legal orders are a measure of last resort and mostly people are being asked to take voluntary steps.

If you have a COVID-19-related story we should pursue that affects British Columbians, please email us at


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