British Columbia

Health and search-and-rescue officials ask B.C. residents to stay home over Easter long weekend

People who head into the backcountry during a pandemic could put search and rescue volunteers at risk.

Stay close to home and avoid groups to prevent coronavirus spread, they advise

Search and rescue calls are down about 50 per cent since physical distancing measures have been put in place during the coronavirus pandemic. (Whistler Search and Rescue)

A swath of provincial and municipal parks have shut down, but that hasn't calmed concerns from leaders, health officials and search and rescue crews that outdoor enthusiasts will be out in force over the long weekend — to the detriment of public health.

On Wednesday, the province closed all provincial parks to stop the spread of COVID-19. Municipalities and regional districts have asked visitors to stay home over the long weekend. But warm weather means many will be tempted to get out of the city.

"We need to stay home this weekend. We need to be close to our families, to the people we share our homes with ... this is not the time to take unnecessary travel, it's not the time to go to some of our smaller or more remote communities," said provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry at her daily briefing.

The City of Vancouver has blocked off parking at Stanley Park to prevent gathering ahead of the weekend. Mayor Kennedy Stewart urged people who live in neighbouring municipalities not to travel to the city.

"You should stay in your home municipality," said Stewart. "Don't flood downtown to come walk on the seawall, or bike around Stanley Park. Stay in your home municipality, enjoy your parks there."

Search and rescue calls are down about 50 per cent since physical distancing measures have been put in place during the coronavirus pandemic. (Coquitlam Search and Rescue)

The domino effect

There have been similar calls from municipalities across B.C., but crowds of British Columbians continue to recreate despite closures and reduced access to parks, trails, and sites.

The Sea-to-Sky region, for example, has seen midsummer levels of traffic, increasing numbers of campers at beach areas, and a lack of physical distancing in popular areas, according to the Squamish-Lillooet Regional District.

WATCH: Premier John Horgan talks about avoiding congregating in parks and beaches this long weekend:

You don't need to go to a park this long weekend: Horgan

2 years ago
B.C. Premier John Horgan says British Columbians can enjoy their local communities and avoid travel during this long weekend. 0:54

SLRD officials told CBC News they had wanted to set up a road block into the area, but were advised by the province that they did not have the authority to do so.

Steve Jones, a B.C. Parks advocate, says closures have been necessary to encourage physical distancing, but there's an unintended consequence.

"With the entire park system being closed at once, people may say, where can I go next?" he said, referring to this as the 'domino effect.' Jones says closures can funnel crowds into remaining areas or parks that are open, or even into more informal spaces, like clearings off logging roads.

 "What sits at the bottom of the domino are areas that are not easy to manage, so it's areas that don't have an official park status ... that's one of the challenges with this," he said.

The roads through Stanley Park closed Wednesday to encourage people to practice physical distancing while walking and cycling through the Vancouver park. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Search and rescue urge caution

The B.C. Search and Rescue Association (BCSARA) is also asking people to stay inside their home municipality.

April marks the start of the busy season for search and rescue crews across the province. Calls have been down by about 50 per cent amid the pandemic

"We see the weather this week, a four-day weekend, and people are getting kind of antsy, so it's making us a little nervous," said Dwight Yochim, a BCSARA senior manager.

There are about 2,500 search and rescue volunteers in B.C. Those who are dispatched must use protective gear —masks and gloves — that are already in short supply. Rescuing someone from the backcountry during a global pandemic puts entire crews at risk.

Buntzen Lake is among recreational areas in B.C. that are now closed amid the COVID-19 pandemic. (Shutterstock)

"Unfortunately, it causes roughly 20 people on a team to get out of social isolation and get together," said Yochim, emphasizing that there's always the possibility the person being rescued might be infected.

"Now those [SAR volunteers] are going back to their families, and hopefully they don't bring anything back with them," said Yochim. "It's just one risk we really don't need right now."


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