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UPDATE: This story was updated Friday morning to reflect a new decision by UVic, announced Thursday night, to require students be vaccinated or undergo regular testing.
The BC health ministry announced a host of new COVID-19 safety measures this week that impact everyone—from business owners to movie-goers, K-12 staff to post-secondary faculty—as a new wave of COVID-19 cases crests, driven by the unvaccinated and the Delta variant.
“While we have made incredible progress… in the broader community, we are seeing increased transmission and increasing levels of transmission, particularly among unvaccinated people,” provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said Tuesday.
These measures include the return of a mask mandate for all indoor public spaces in BC, and the introduction of a new vaccine passport—or the BC Vaccine Card—which people 12 and older must show in order to get into bars, restaurants, movie theatres, concerts and more come Sept. 13.
Students in grades four and up will have to wear masks in classrooms, as will staff and faculty. Colleges and universities in BC will require students to show proof of vaccination if they want to live on campus or attend social activities like ticketed sporting events and concerts, or visit a pub or restaurant.
While many see these measures as welcome news after weeks of no action from the government amid surging COVID-19 cases, safety concerns remain for frontline workers across sectors. Some are worried about having to enforce the vaccine passport rule for members of the public who are known to become belligerent when asked to follow COVID safety rules, while others fear the measures won’t do enough to protect them against the virus.
Island businesses respond
Bruce Williams, CEO of the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce, says the vast majority of businesses in the region that will be required to ask customers to show their proof of vaccination think the measure is “not ideal, but it's a hell of a lot better than a lockdown.”
“The general attitude is, ‘If we don't do this, as the variant continues to surge, we know what's ahead,’” Williams told Capital Daily. “So we have to get ahead of that with measures like this.”
There was some frustration among Victoria businesses at having just 24 hours notice before the mask mandate was reinstated, Williams said, as many were caught off guard and had to rush to change signs on their storefronts.
On the other hand, Jeff Bray, executive director of the Downtown Victoria Business Association (DVBA), says he heard from many business operators who are grateful for the return of the mask mandate.
“It at least takes individual businesses out of the equation, of deciding whether or not they want that kind of rule in place,” he said. That reduces the pressure on front-line workers to justify asking customers, some of whom are uncooperative, to wear masks.
That backup, however, may not be much comfort to businesses who will have to enforce vaccine-checking mandates as of Sept. 13. While retail stores and personal-care businesses (like hair and nail salons) are exempt from requiring customers to present this proof of immunization, restaurants, pubs, movie theatres, and fitness centres are not.
So far, it seems as though those businesses are on their own when it comes to enforcing the vaccine passport requirement, either by hiring an employee to stand at the door and check customers’ immunization status or by designating an existing employee to do that extra work.
Both Williams and Bray expect that this will put a strain on some businesses, as many are already struggling to find workers due to a dearth of labour in the region.
“If [businesses] do have to add somebody to enforce that [rule], which is something mandated by the government, then maybe the government can consider providing some support for that,” Williams said.
Bray sees enforcement of this new rule as more difficult for some businesses than for others. Restaurants and pubs, for example, already have a contact tracing system in place to ask guests for their name and phone number. Adding a vaccine card check to that mechanism will be relatively easy in those settings, he says, compared to gyms and fitness centres that may not already have designated employees to greet each customer.
The good news, according to Williams, is that there are still a few weeks before the proof of vaccine requirement kicks in, giving the government enough time to figure out how it will roll out—especially in light of expected backlash from members of the public who do not agree with the proof of vaccine requirement.
“There's certainly going to be frustration,” Williams said. “But we're very hopeful that the average decent human being will not take that out on a business owner or an individual who is in place to make sure that the mandate is followed.”
Not all businesses support the new mandate, however.
Since the announcement of the BC Vaccine Card, a Facebook group entitled ‘BC Businesses against Health Pass’ has been created to denounce the restrictions. The group already has 62,000 members and is growing fast.
An Instagram account entitled ‘Vancouver Island Inclusive’ has also been created to showcase businesses on the island whose owners have publicly stated they will not be requiring their customers to show proof of vaccination. The account so far has listed dozens of businesses including a Victoria gym, The Fitness Academy, several hair salons, retail and services, restaurants, and cafes including Esquimalt's Sunnyside Cafe. It has more than quadrupled its following in a single day on Thursday, and has steadily added new businesses.
In an emailed statement, the BC Ministry of Health said they will be working with businesses over the next few weeks to make sure they implement the vaccine card program. Businesses that don’t comply could be subject to enforcement measures, including being shut down.
No further information was provided about what complaints processes or enforcement measures will look like.
Back to school
The other major announcement this week involved COVID-19 safety measures in K-12 and post-secondary institutions, with the imminent return of students to classrooms for in-person lessons next month.
Winona Waldron, president of the Greater Victoria Teachers’ Association, says there were some positives in the province’s announcement, but some of the measures were either unclear or do not go far enough to protect students and staff. As a result, she says she has heard from many teachers who say they don’t feel safe returning to classrooms this fall.
While students in grades four and up are required to wear masks in school settings like classrooms and buses, younger children are to be encouraged but not required to don a mask.
“It puts the onus on the teachers to create that culture, rather than it just being the rule. Teachers understand when students need an exception—when a kindergarten student can't wear a mask for longer that day,” Waldron said. “That's what we do in schools; we differentiate our instruction depending on the needs of our students. But if we start from a place [where] this is the rule, it is so much easier for teachers to then enforce that rule with those that are able.”
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She has also received many emails from teachers nearing the end of their careers who are contemplating an early retirement due to the uncertainty and risk factors that come with being older and having to work in classrooms where they could be exposed to the virus.
One aspect of the province’s plan that was simply unclear is the provision of vaccine clinics at schools. Waldron says the system through which vaccine clinics will be held at school remains ambiguous, leaving questions like whether or not individual schools will have to specifically make a request to host clinics, and how long each clinic will remain at each school unanswered.
Another issue is the fact that the new document on K-12 the BCCDC released earlier this week consists of extensive new guidelines, but little time for teachers to be trained on how to effectively implement them in classrooms.
For Waldron, the question of mandating vaccines for staff and faculty is not a major issue, at least in the Greater Victoria area.
“We're not opposed to a vaccine mandate in principle, but at this point, I'm not sure what it would really accomplish,” she said. “For teachers, what I've heard from our membership here in Victoria is that everybody who can be vaccinated is getting vaccinated.”
The best step to take with regards to immunization, she says, is to make sure vaccines are easily available in schools to students aged 12 and up who may not have had the chance to get vaccinated over the summer.
Over at UVic
At the University of Victoria, staff and faculty members have expressed their disappointment with the new policies for post-secondary institutions, some of which fall short of the measures they have been calling for over the past few months.
A joint press release from CUPE 951, 4163, the Professional Employees Association, and the Faculty Association—which together represent all instructors and office staff on campus—said while the groups welcome the mask mandate and partial vaccine mandate, the measures announced don’t do enough to protect students and employees on campus.
“Compared to other provinces, BC has unparalleled control over the post-secondary sector,” said PEA chapter chair Sheryl Karras. “While almost all universities across Canada have the autonomy to mandate vaccinations or rapid testing for students, and have done so, this is still not possible in BC. We remain frustrated by our government’s inflexible approach to the health and safety of our campus communities.”
Dr. Bonnie Henry said on Tuesday that post-secondary institutions in BC will not be allowed to mandate vaccines for students to take in person classes, but can do so for faculty and staff through employment agreements.
An open letter from UVic Law faculty members released on Thursday urges the university to implement a mask mandate for students, stating that there is “no legal basis” for the government to override the university regarding the health and safety of students and staff on campus and prevent UVic from implementing a vaccination requirement.
“In our view, it is in the best interests of the University that the University quickly implement a vaccine mandate that applies to all students, faculty, staff, and visitors to campus,” the faculty members said in the letter.
Matthew Koch, Vice-President of CUPE 4163, said at this point, UVic employees are feeling a sense of foreboding at the prospect of a fall semester without a vaccine mandate in place for classrooms.
“We have been told we will hear more later this week or at some point next week regarding expectations for students and staff in the fall, and I have heard that a vaccination mandate at least for staff is in progress of being defined, but no official word has yet been sent,” Koch said in an email to Capital Daily.
UVic President Kevin Hall came out with a statement Thursday evening saying students, staff and faculty attending on-campus activities will have to either declare that they’re fully vaccinated or get tested periodically until they are able to get vaccinated.
This new measure was agreed upon between the Ministry of Advanced Education, Skills and Training, the Provincial Health Office, and administration at UBC and SFU, the letter says.
The plan was announced after the aforementioned calls to action put forth by unions and faculty members in the past few weeks, and came just hours after the open letter from the UVic Law faculty was published.
According to Hall’s statement, UVic is now working to develop a platform to manage data collection around vaccination status. Administration also plans to discuss the implementation of these measures with faculty, staff associations and unions, as well as student societies in the coming days, with less than two weeks left to go before the fall semester begins.