Nova Scotia

Cape Breton councillor questions effectiveness of COVID-19 retail restrictions

A Cape Breton regional councillor is questioning the enforcement of retail restrictions under Nova Scotia's latest public health order, and whether allowing big-box stores to remain open has led to high case numbers.

Deputy health minister says enforcement of retail rules is increasing

Steve Gillespie questioned how effective provincial retail restrictions have been when big box stores remain open, and have been the site of various potential exposures of the virus. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

A Cape Breton regional councillor is questioning the enforcement of retail restrictions under Nova Scotia's latest public health orders.

During a Cape Breton Regional Municipality council meeting on Wednesday, Steve Gillespie said small businesses have been forced to close while big-box retailers are wide open and there is concern that that has contributed to the latest COVID-19 wave.

The number of cases has been dropping steadily in Nova Scotia, but the number in Cape Breton has remained about the same — between 10 and 20 new cases a day — for more than a week.

"Cape Breton did so well last year and is now doing so badly. What would be the reasoning behind allowing this to happen?" Gillespie asked Dr. Kevin Orrell, the province's deputy health minister.

The health department says under current restrictions, only retailers selling essential goods can have customers inside their stores, and the buildings are allowed no more than 25 per cent of the usual capacity.

It says other shops can continue to do business, but only online or by pickup or delivery.

Gillespie said he has seen groups of people going into large retail stores with no one counting them or checking their purchases to determine whether they are essential goods only.

He also said the same stores have regularly showed up on the provincial list of public places exposed to the virus.

Gillespie said he was told by the chief of the Cape Breton Regional Police that the retail rules are not being enforced because they have not been mandated by the province.

Orrell, who attended the online meeting with council, agreed with Gillespie that people seem to be shopping without regard to the public health order.

Dr. Kevin Orrell says retail inspections are increasing to make sure people aren't breaking health rules, but they are difficult. (Brian MacKay/CBC)

He said provincial officials initially believed the public would follow the rules as they have done in the past.

"People felt that because we'd been through this — this was the third wave, so we'd been through it twice before — that behaviour and protocols and things would be identified by the general population," Orrell said.

"It's clearly not the case. I think people have misbehaved."

The deputy health minister said retail inspections are increasing as a result, but they are difficult.

"I think that the manpower it would take to identify this business versus the one next door, right across the province, would be so enormous as to be unrealistic," he said.

The Department of Labour and Advanced Education said inspectors have been working throughout the pandemic, but it would not say if inspections have increased.

Cape Breton police say they are enforcing the rules and encourage people to report suspected violations.

Meanwhile, Orrell also said provincial officials are concerned that Cape Bretoners are not getting tested for COVID-19 or getting vaccinated as much as hoped.

He said it seems that younger people are not making appointments for the vaccine or getting tested.

Some vaccine doses that were set to expire had to be sent from Cape Breton to the central zone to avoid wastage, Orrell said.

He said the amount was not large, but he asked council to encourage residents to get tested and vaccinated.

Orrell said that would be an important way to help the province gradually reopen businesses starting in mid-June.

He said it is expected the Atlantic bubble will then open in the middle of summer, with travel to other provinces allowed by late summer/early fall.