This was the scene in Sidney’s Tulista Park last Tuesday. Sidney’s chief administrative officer Randy Humble said the municipality will encourage residents to ‘play safe and stay safe’ against the backdrop of a COVID-19 surge among youth in following provincial directions, but also said the municipality lacks the legislative authority to enforce social distancing in public spaces. (Submitted)

Vancouver Island officials can ‘only educate and encourage’ people to social distance

Leaders plead for education, as municipality lacks authority to enforce social distancing in public

It was a beautifully sunny summer Tuesday in Sidney’s Tulista Park.

Several groups of individuals were socializing and playing various sports on the green space between the skateboard park and the playground and public washrooms.

While the estimated total numbers of individuals in the area appeared below 50 — the upper limit for public gatherings — several small clusters of individuals dotted the area, with individuals appearing to stand within two metres of each other.

Comparable clusters have also appeared on other evenings last week.

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July has seen COVID-19 cases in British Columbia spike against the backdrop of images of large crowds gathering on rafted boats in the Okanagan and on beaches in Vancouver.

This imagery has prompted provincial political leaders and health officials including provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry to remind the public – specifically youth –to refrain from risky behaviour for not only their own sake, but also for the sake of others, including high-risk groups, such as seniors.

If the warnings lead to change it will be because people chose to listen. Vancouver Island communities simply lack the legislative authority to enforce social distancing in public spaces.

“We can only educate and encourage them to social distance,” said Randy Humble, CAO in Sidney, where seniors account for almost 41 per cent of the population

Humble said the municipality continues to follow the advice and guidance of the provincial health officer.

“This includes the [provincial order] limiting crowds of people to less than 50 persons,” he said. “It’s been indicated by Dr. Bonnie Henry that interactions with people that are part of your ‘bubble’ are acceptable while keeping a safe distance from others.”

Henry has also repeatedly indicated that activities outdoors are much safer than those indoors, said Humble.

“From the Town’s perspective, we will continue to encourage people to ‘play safe and stay safe.’”

It is not clear whether individuals seen playing in Tulista Park were in their respective so-called bubbles.

The executive director of the Saanich Peninsula Chamber of Commerce is calling for an education campaign about social distancing and common safety protocols for retailers.

“Our challenge, as we move forward, is not going to be in attracting people, because they are here and they want to be here,” said Denny Warner. “It’s going to be in educating visitors about our expectations and about developing some protocols for our retailers, so that everyone is on the same page.”

“We live in a community where there are a lot of vulnerable people, so we have a greater responsibility perhaps than some of the other communities,” she said.

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Warner said some retailers are stricter than others when it comes to customers wearing masks and using hand sanitizer. “So it might just be easier for our community if we could develop some sort of protocols that people would agree to follow, so that there was more uniformity in terms of visitor experience.”

It would be “great” to achieve this level of consistency, she added, but obstacles remain.

“We do understand that people have some choice in it. Some people have a different level of comfort with the risk. So there are no kind of tools or teeth that we have for enforcement.”

Unless the provincial health officer issues mandates beyond the existing standards required by WorkSafeBC and the Island Health, that scenario will remain, she added.

The British Columbia COVID-19 Dashboard run by the British Columbia Centre for Disease Control shows Vancouver Island Health Authority with a total of 143 reported cases as of Tuesday, July 28. That figure represents just over four per cent of all reported cases in British Columbia.

Hence Warner’s call for a education campaign that would not only benefit public health, but also the long-term economic fortunes of the community.

“We have a lot of vulnerable people in this community, and … we don’t want to get into a situation where we have to shut down again,” she said.

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