British Columbia invoked extraordinary emergency powers Thursday to protect consumers from profiteers and to maintain the steady supply of goods and services for those who need them during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The powers will also unify provincial response efforts while taking an inventory of public spaces that could serve as possible COVID-19 pandemic treatment facilities.
Premier John Horgan said the measures are required to ensure the flow of essential goods and services and support B.C.’s fight against the novel coronavirus, which has resulted in 14 deaths and infected more than 650 people.
“The steps we’ve taken today are unprecedented,” he said at a news conference. “This is not a drill, it’s a pandemic.”
Horgan said the powers under the Emergency Program Act are required to add more force to recent orders by B.C. provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, who has instructed people to self-isolate for 14 days if sick or recently returned from travel and practise physical distancing.
“Today, we believe we are on the right track,” said Horgan. “If we need to do more we will.”
Public Safety Minister Mike Farnsworth said the emergency orders will support efforts by Henry and Health Minister Adrian Dix to reduce the numbers of infected people.
“Listen to Dr. Henry,” he said. “Dr. Henry’s orders are not suggestions or good advice, they are the law.”
Municipal bylaw officers will be permitted to enforce orders limiting the size of gatherings and business closures, Farnworth said.
The government is also looking to use vacant convention centres and other large community spaces for overflow health facilities, he said.
Dix said earlier this week, the province’s cancellation of elective and scheduled surgeries has created space in B.C. hospitals for up to 4,000 patients.
Farnworth said the government has created a supply-chain unit of government and industry advisers that will co-ordinate the flow of goods and services by land, air, marine and rail. He said aircraft currently not flying due to global travel restrictions could be used to make deliveries of supplies.
Farnworth said the resale of food, medical supplies, personal protective equipment and cleaning products has also been banned.
Passenger and car-ferry services will be cut to minimum service levels and support for critical services for vulnerable people will be increased to stock food banks and provide shelters, he said.
The order also suspends the many community states of emergency already in place to avoid a patchwork response to the pandemic, said Farnworth, adding the suspension does not apply to Vancouver, which has its own community charter.
“It’s very much a co-operative effort,” he said. “It does give us some considerable power, but again, it’s all about planning for the long term as well as the immediate needs.”
Vancouver announced the opening of two emergency response centres in the city’s downtown to create additional space for homelessness people. It says the centres are operating on a referral basis to help reduce the spread of COVID-19.
“We understand this is an unprecedented use of our community centres, but deploying them in this way is critical to try to prevent the spread of the virus and mitigate the demand on our health-care system,” city manager Sadhu Johnston said in a news release.
Farnworth declared a provincial state of emergency on March 18, the day after Henry declared a public health emergency on March 17.