British Columbia

Vancouver shuts down DTES street market to the dismay of organizers

The city shut down the street market on Thursday following a recently introduced ban on all gatherings with more than 50 people.

Community advocate calling on city to begin testing DTES residents for COVID-19

Some vendors from the Downtown Eastside Market moved to the sidewalk on Thursday after the City of Vancouver closed their usual market space on Hastings Street due to COVID-19 concerns. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

At 6:30 a.m. Thursday, a phone call woke up Constance Barnes. It was the City of Vancouver. 

She says they told her the city was shutting down the street market she runs in the Downtown Eastside (DTES) out of fear the bustling bazaar could promote the spread of COVID-19 in Vancouver's most vulnerable neighbourhood. 

Earlier in the week, the city announced a ban on all gatherings of more than 50 people, leaving many restaurants and bars across Vancouver to shutter. 

But instead of a potential breeding ground for contagion, Barnes believes the market, which provides washrooms, clean needles and the support of peer workers, could play an invaluable role in helping contain the virus. 

"We're able to tell people, 'You need to be 10 feet away.' We can give them gloves. We can talk to them about what's going on," said Barnes, the executive director of the Four Directions Trading Post, formerly known as the Downtown Eastside Street Market.

"These people are vulnerable. They're seniors, they're homeless, they're living in the SROs. "They don't have TVs. They don't have means to buy a newspaper. They don't have cellphones. They have no idea what's going on."

She suggested the market become a COVID-19 testing centre.

'We have seniors that come here every single day, 365 days a year,' said Barnes. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

In response to the forced closure, hawkers have decided to "go a little bit rogue," Barnes said.

On Thursday, along the sidewalk in front of 58 West Hastings Street, the vacant lot where the market's normally located, a row of tables with vendors had been set up, each a few metres apart. Barnes said the market also brought out its hand-washing stations. 

Beyond assisting in the effort to contain the outbreak, she emphasized the economic importance of the market to people in the neighbourhood.

"We have seniors that come here every single day, 365 days a year," said Barnes, a longtime DTES advocate. "These people don't have Christmas, they don't have spring break. They make $5, $10. That's their prescription. Or maybe it's some cheese or maybe it's something for their children. We have single parents here as well."  

One vendor who doesn't receive social assistance from the government told CBC News he depends on the profits he makes at the market to pay rent.

The city told CBC it was working to address income-generation gaps spurred by the market's closure. 

"This is a difficult and challenging time for everyone in the community and there are no perfect solutions to some of the complex issues we are trying to work through," the city's statement read. 

According to Vancouver, the municipality is working in partnership with Vancouver Coastal Health and BC Housing to introduce immediate measures to protect people in the DTES. 

Vancouver has also recently opened 11 new hand-washing stations in the neighbourhood. As well, the city's decision Thursday to declare a local state of emergency should grant the city the authority to take over parts of facilities, ensuring homeless people can self-isolate.

But Barnes worries the virus may have already reached the community. 

"I say to Mayor Kennedy Stewart: Please help us. We need somebody down here testing. This is going to be chaos waiting to happen."

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

With files from Justin McElroy and Jon Hernandez

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