COVID-19: B.C. fears cross-border transmission as virus rages in Alberta

BRITISH COLUMBIA: April 22, 2021 -- No Recreational Travel sign. New  travel restrictions will be announced by Transportation and Infrastructure Minister Mike Farnworth, Friday, April 23, 2021. Photo credit:  Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure. [PNG Merlin Archive]

With signs on the B.C.-Alberta border the only thing to deter our provincial neighbours from vacationing here, there’s growing concern that Alberta’s high COVID-19 rates could spill into B.C., just as cases edge downward here.

Alberta has more than 23,000 active COVID-19 infections and has the highest case rate of any jurisdiction in North America. A record 154 infected people were in intensive care on Monday.

The B.C. Centre for Disease Control is warning that as Alberta grapples with the highest number of COVID-19 cases per capita in Canada, interprovincial travel could increase transmission in B.C.

Alberta’s daily COVID cases have been on a steady upward path since March, nearing 40 cases a day for every 100,000 people. In comparison, B.C.’s daily cases have been trending down since the second week of April, hitting about 17 dacases a day for every 100,000 people for the week of April 23 to 29.

Peter Milobar, B.C. Liberal MLA for Kamloops-North Thompson, said he and his fellow MLAs have heard from frustrated constituents who feel the province’s new travel restrictions are tougher on British Columbians than out-of-province travellers.

“We’re neighbouring a jurisdiction that’s having major struggles,” Milobar said. “That’s what we’re hearing from people in the Kootenays and border areas — they don’t understand why a B.C. resident is subjected to one set of rules and an Alberta resident is subjected to another set of rules.”

A public health order which came into effect April 23 means that British Columbians who travel between zones for non-essential reasons could face a $575 fine. The order, in effect until May 25, divides the province into three regional zones, a combined zone for Vancouver Coastal Health and Fraser Valley, another one for the Northern/Interior health regions and a third for Vancouver Island.

 The B.C. government has released this mockup of signs that could be going up soon in B.C. and at provincial border.

The travel restrictions do not prohibit interprovincial travel, which means there’s no penalties for Albertans or any out-of-province travellers who come to B.C. unless they cross regional boundaries. The restrictions do not apply to air travel, which is a federal jurisdiction.

Milobar said the province touted the travel restrictions as a way to prevent people from COVID-19 hot spots in the Fraser Health region from travelling to Vancouver Island and the Interior and Northern B.C. but the only deterrent for people in Alberta, Canada’s new COVID hot spot, is a highway sign.

Once in B.C., visitors from Alberta face the same travel restrictions as B.C. residents, which means those travelling for non-essential reasons are required to stay in one zone, said B.C. RCMP spokeswoman Staff Sgt. Janelle Shoihet.

Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth said last week that while travelling to B.C. might not earn Albertans a fine, they are being asked to stay away.

“Our message at this point is, we really like our Alberta friends, but now is not the time to visit British Columbia,” Farnworth said Friday. “Certainly not for the next five weeks. … We’ve got real issues in terms of COVID, the transmission of the virus and the variants. People need to stay local, in their own community.”

Premier John Horgan has said because of B.C.’s long border with Alberta, restricting cross-border travel would be too difficult. Horgan said in January that a legal opinion received by the province indicates that much of the current interprovincial travel is work-related and therefore cannot be restricted.

However, the Maritime provinces and Northern territories have mandatory 14-day quarantine rules for any out-of-province travellers.

Horgan must make the taxpayer-funded legal opinion public, Milobar said.

Dawson Creek Mayor Dale Bumstead is confident workers, not holidaymakers, are doing most of the cross-border travel between his Northeastern B.C. town and Grande Prairie, Alta. With Dawson Creek only 15 kilometres from the Alberta border, Bumstead said many residents of the two towns shop across the border or cross into the neighbouring province for work in the forestry, agriculture or energy sector.

“It’s the non-essential travel we’re really focusing on,” Bumstead said. “I think people in Alberta are not coming to B.C. as much for non-essential travel.” Bumstead noted that while the warmer weather has not yet hit Dawson Creek, which had snow on the ground as of last week, he’s not seeing an influx of RVs.

The third wave hit Dawson Creek hard, Bumstead said, which he said has hammered home for local residents the importance of staying local and following public health guidelines.

In mid-April, Dawson Creek was identified as the province’s top COVID-19 hot spot, with a rate of 552 cases per 100,000 people. However, a mass vaccination campaign in the community of 13,000 has been effective in tamping down transmission rates.

Meanwhile, the B.C. RCMP say they have not set up any checkpoints between health authorities and have not handed out any tickets for violations of the new travel restrictions.

RCMP Chief Supt. Dave Attfield said Friday the public will be notified on social media and through the B.C. RCMP website when checkpoints are planned.

“I would expect something soon with respect to these road checks,” she said. The checkpoints will take place on Highways 1, 3, 5 and 99 near the boundaries of the combined Vancouver Coastal and Fraser Health regions and the combined Northern and Interior Health regions.

COVID-19: B.C. fears cross-border transmission as virus rages in Alberta