Laws, orders, rules and guidance – requirements in Covid pandemic can be confusing

The Town of Osoyoos and other municipalities assist the province in enforcing provincial public health orders. But bylaw officers aren’t given additional powers, and they can’t make arrests or impose fines. (© Richard McGuire Photo)

It can be confusing trying to stay up to date on the “rules” about how to conduct ourselves during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Not only are statements being issued simultaneously by federal, provincial and municipal governments, but also from numerous departments, ministries and agencies of each.

“Rules” is used in quotation marks because some are strict laws with serious legal consequences – the federal Quarantine Act, for example, which imposes 14 days isolation on Canadians returning from the U.S. or abroad.

Other “rules” are strong recommendations for good reasons, but there’s currently no legislative authority to enforce them – preventing people from travelling to other B.C. communities, for example.

The confusion is most obvious when members of the public take it upon themselves to “enforce the rules” through vigilante action or shaming others on social media.

A man, who moved to Osoyoos in January, is accosted by four vigilantes when he returns to his truck after shopping at Buy-Low. He still has an Alberta plate and the vigilantes threaten him with profanities to go back where he came from.

A businesswoman calls out on Facebook another businesswoman whose store remains open and then blames the mayor and bylaw enforcement for not closing it. Others chime in, wrongly, that because the store isn’t an essential service, it can’t remain open.

Busybodies opine on social media that others shouldn’t leave their homes to shop for groceries or get exercise, even though both activities are permitted and health authorities are encouraging people to get out and exercise, while physical distancing.

So what are the rules governing public behaviour during the pandemic? Aside from the federal Quarantine Act, the provincial government sets most of these through provincial health orders. Under the Provincial State of Emergency, and the B.C. Public Health Act, Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry can issue mandatory orders.

See Orders, Notices and Guidance for a comprehensive list of existing measures.

Here are some of the main orders currently in effect:

  • March 16: The owner, occupier or operator of a place may not permit mass gatherings of more than 50 people;
  • March 17: Travellers in B.C. who returned to Canada from the U.S. or any other country on or after March 12 had to self-isolate for 14 days. This measure was taken before the federal government invoked the Quarantine Act;
  • March 20: Restaurants may only provide take-out or delivery service. Bars that don’t provide meal service must close. Businesses providing liquor off-sales may stay open. See full details in the order. See also the Food and Beverage Sector Fact Sheet;
  • Additional orders limit staff to working in only one long-term care facility and protect staff from retribution for following those orders.

The province also provides guidance to various industries, organizations and families. For example, this information from March 28 pertains to retail grocery stores. And this sheet from April 6 gives advice for farmers and farm workers.

Although the guidance sheets typically refer to orders, and they offer excellent advice, they are not orders in themselves. Nonetheless, they are taken into consideration when deciding whether a business can remain open or must close.

So besides the businesses mentioned in the orders above, which businesses can stay open and which are required to close?

On March 21, Henry ordered the closure of such personal service businesses as nail salons, tattoo parlours, barbershops, beauty parlours, health spas and massage parlours and other businesses that require direct personal contact that can’t be done while social distancing.

Five days later, the province issued a list of “essential services,” which are encouraged to stay open, while following orders and guidance. The list is lengthy and includes everything from health service to food cultivation and processing to banks, hotels, media, construction, towing and numerous others.

Essential services are those necessary to “preserving life, health, public safety and basic societal functioning. They are the services British Columbians rely on in their daily lives,” the province says.

But what about businesses that have not been ordered closed, but aren’t on the list of essential services? This seems to be a source of public confusion, even though the province was quite explicit.

“In consultation with the provincial health officer (PHO), any business or service that has not been ordered to close, and is not identified on the essential service list, may stay open if it can adapt its services and workplace to the orders and recommendations of the PHO,” the provincial government said when it announced the list of essential services.

In its March 27 news release about Covid-19, the Town of Osoyoos printed the above information in bold for emphasis. And then it repeated it. Still, many members of the public wrongly believe that non-essential businesses must close.

And what about complaints that town isn’t shutting down certain businesses that the complainers think should be closed?

Aside from the fact that such businesses are allowed to remain open if they follow provincial orders and guidance, the town has limited authority even when such businesses don’t follow the rules.

Provincial orders issued on March 25 and March 31 enable municipal bylaw officers “to provide assistance for compliance and enforcement of public health through monitoring and providing warnings, information and advice.”

This assistance includes monitoring certain facilities, providing information and warnings to the public, and providing information to the RCMP and provincial health officers.

“The order does not authorize bylaw enforcement officers to detain anyone or to issue fines or penalties pursuant to Provincial Public Health Orders,” the Town of Osoyoos says in its March 27 news release. “It does not provide bylaw enforcement with additional powers.” (emphasis in original)

The town said the bylaw officer will be patrolling downtown businesses and talking to anyone who may be contravening the provincial health orders. This will include visits to those businesses that are allowed to stay open, but aren’t listed as essential services. But the bylaw officer can only provide information and educate people.

If a person continues to disobey the health orders, the bylaw officer can notify the office of the PHO, which may involve the RCMP.

“The bylaw officer will not be going to individual homes to educate people of this order as there are too many to allow him to do so,” the Town of Osoyoos said in an April 1 news release. “He may attend locations that are public and educate people that may appear to be violating the social distancing and will act on those concerns, but not those in private dwellings.”

The town’s primary function remains to provide municipal services while acting within its authority under the Community Charter and the Local Government Act.

“Therefore, some of the actions being requested of the town may not be able to be acted upon as the authority is not given to a local government to do so,” the town’s April 1 news released added. “Please be kind when speaking to town staff that may have to refer you to another authority for the action requested.”

Perhaps surprising is that some of the most commonly cited “rules,” such as that people need to maintain a physical distance of two metres between themselves and others, are not actually written into laws or explicit orders.

To a large degree, governments in Canada have operated on the basis that asking the public to do the right thing is more effective than a myriad of laws and penalties. And, of course, if there is widespread violation of these recommendations, compulsory orders can later be introduced when needed.

Currently this approach is working, people are physically distancing and the “curve” of new cases has been leveling off in B.C. If things suddenly get worse again, the provincial government could choose to take a different approach.

Author: Richard McGuire

Richard McGuire is an Osoyoos photographer who worked at the Osoyoos Times between 2012 and 2018, first as reporter and then as editor. He has a long career in journalism as well as research, communication and management at the House of Commons in Ottawa and in the federal government.

Leave a Reply