There is no safe reopening without robust health order enforcement

Lack of monitoring for businesses makes individuals responsible for their own COVID-19 health

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It will be impossible to ensure that all reopened areas are complying with the BC public health orders. Photo: Maxwell Gawlick/The Peak

By: Manisha Sharma, SFU Student

As BC slowly reopens, many are keen to get back to the lives we had before the pandemic forced us into quarantine. Like coming out of hibernation, people are leaving their homes and are eager to get out and enjoy the sun, go out to eat, and socialize. But not so fast.

Although the provincial health authorities have determined that the spread of COVID-19 has slowed enough to begin reopening again with careful precautions, doing so largely depends on everyone in the community complying fully — and on their own. This is because government enforcement of the slow reopening rules is largely nonexistent. If we want to avoid a spike in cases and a second strict lockdown, then everyone needs to become familiar with and comply with public health guidelines. To do otherwise is to jeopardize all the hard-won gains we’ve already made in BC.  

BC is currently in Phase 2 of its reopening plan, which means businesses such as salons, recreational facilities, cafes, etc. are cautiously beginning to open again. As part of this, provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry has issued a public health order to guide all businesses reopening during this phase that details precautions and mandatory requirements employers must meet. These guidelines include removing any health hazards from the place of business, for employees to wear proper protective equipment, and to maintain a clean workplace by regularly sanitizing and disinfecting surfaces.

Businesses found to be operating in conditions that may put staff or customers at risk of COVID-19 exposure may be issued a health order. Orders may include instructions for the business to destroy unsanitary items, ask employers/employees to wear protective equipment, or even to demand the business close down until further notice. 

But what is preventing businesses from going back to not following safety precautions when they are not being monitored? For that matter, who is to know that these guidelines are going to be followed to begin with? Failure to comply with the health order may result in businesses losing their licences, but this is only if they’re caught. The problem is that it’s unclear right now how the province intends to monitor and enforce its COVID-19 health order — other than random drop-in inspections under the Public Health Act.

Cracks in this system are already beginning to form. A friend of mine recently went to get her eyebrows done, and despite being told that all customers entering the store were required to wear a mask, which she did, the owner wasn’t even wearing a mask or gloves around customers and staff. 

According to the enforcement guidelines that were last updated March 31, police officers are not allowed to detain or issue fines for those not following guidelines put out by the BC government. Police officers can only act to help public health officers by warning and reminding people about the guidelines. This essentially leaves ensuring public health during reopening up to the honour system, and more alarmingly, with minimal difference from how health standards are upheld under normal conditions.

What this ultimately means is that it is up to us as individuals to act within and demand the safest possible environments as the economy reopens. Despite the lack of enforcement measures being taken by the government, there are some things we  can do. 

If you see a business not following the public health order, you can notify a health officer or WorkSafeBC. Most importantly, it is still within our power to take ownership over our own safety and by adhering to guidelines and safety regulations, and not patronizing establishments that do not comply. Finally, make sure that you familiarize yourself with changes as they occur, as the province continues to slowly reopen.