In response to COVID-19, social distancing measures have brought significant changes to our personal and work lives. In Canada, the federal government has announced border closures, travel advisories, emergency economic support and other policies, to soften the impacts of COVID-19. Provinces and territories across Canada have also taken swift action. Some provinces have declared states of emergency, with other provinces and territories declaring public health emergencies. Municipalities across Canada are also ramping up efforts to combat COVID-19. The scope of the measures across Canada will evolve over the coming days, weeks and months.
This article will focus on some of the responses by the British Columbia and Ontario governments to promote and ensure social distancing to flatten the COVID-19 curve.
British Columbia’s COVID-19 response measures
On March 18, 2020, the British Columbia Minister for Public Safety and Solicitor General declared a provincial state of emergency under the Emergency Program Act, R.S.B.C. 1996, c. 111. The provincial statement of emergency is initially in effect for 14 days, once issued, and may be extended or rescinded as necessary. This follows the public health emergency declared by Dr. Henry, the British Columbia Provincial Health Officer, on March 17, 2020. The Provincial Health Officer can now exercise emergency powers in Part 5 of the Public Health Act, S.B.C. 2008, c. 28, in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.
On March 20, 2020, the Provincial Health Officer ordered that all restaurants across the province must close their doors to dine-in guests and move to only take-out or delivery services until further notice.
For other work places that remain open, Dr. Henry stated, “Sufficient physical distancing of one to two meters should be incorporated for workers and customers for businesses and services that will remain open to provide transportation, keep our communities safe, and provide essential goods and services”.
On March 17, 2020, Dr. Henry issued a class order requiring the following individuals to self-isolate:
- People who travelled outside Canada and returned on or after March 12, 2020; or
- People who have travelled outside Canada on or since March 12, 2020, and have returned, or who have travelled to Canada from another country, including the United States of America, since March 12, 2020.
However, the order to travellers provides criteria for exempting essential service workers from self-isolation protocols.
Also, on March 16, 2020, Dr. Bonnie Henry issued a class order banning mass gatherings in excess of 50 people at any place (Gathering Order). The wording of the Gathering Order is broad, and there are ongoing efforts to clarify the scope of the order and its impacts on businesses. The British Columbia Centre for Disease Control has provided the following guidance on its website:
- All public gatherings larger than 50 people – indoors or outdoors – are ordered to be cancelled for now.
- This does not apply to buildings (including airports and schools) or transportation (including ferries and airplanes). This does not apply to grocery stores or shopping malls. This does not apply to museums, ski hills or other places where the environment allows for distance between people.
- You are encouraged to operate your business as usual with increased attention to common sense practices and measures to support social distancing.
In a March 18, 2020 press conference update, Dr. Henry provided further clarification on the scope of the above measures. The purpose of the measures is so that essential businesses can continue to operate, while maintaining proper social distancing of one to two metres between people. Employers should provide hygiene measures for employees and customers. The requirements for social distancing and hygiene will vary for each business, depending on the circumstances of each business and the capacity of the business premises. Also, Dr. Henry has asked employers to excuse workers for sickness without requiring a doctor’s note.
For industrial sites, employers should reduce the numbers of individuals on the site. Employers for industrial sites should also make sure that employees are not congregating in areas where they are spending a lot of time together, for example, lunches and breaks. Employees should have opportunities to be separated from each other in enclosed spaces, with staggered schedules as one potential measure.
Further, major mines, sand and gravel, and placer operations in British Columbia must comply with the orders and directives issued by the provincial health officer in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic. Specifically, mines in British Columbia must follow the Gatherings Order, prohibiting gatherings in excess of 50 people. The Chief Inspector of Mines has issued a number of recommendations for day-to-day operations, including transportation to and from sites:
- Reduce the number of on-site personnel by encouraging work from home where feasible.
- In-person town hall meetings used to address the whole site must be avoided for groups of more than 50 people. Communication should continue in smaller groups or via other media.
- Daily pre-shift safety meetings (toolbox meetings) affecting more than 50 people are to be held in smaller numbers or via other media.
- Reduce in-person meetings and other gatherings where possible.
- Limit the number of people in each area to fewer than 50 at any given time, and establish multiple sittings in cafeterias to minimize interactions.
- Implement social distancing practices of two metres between people.
British Columbia will soon be providing updated recommendations for limiting the spread of COVID-19.
Ontario’s COVID-19 response measures
On March 17, 2020, to limit the spread of COVID-19, the Premier delivered an order declaring an emergency under section 7.0.1 of the Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act, R.S.O. 1990, c. E.9 (Act). The order was made to protect the health and safety of all Ontarians, and it will allow the Province to quickly implement and enforce orders in the public interest.
The Lieutenant Governor in Council confirmed the order, ensuring that it remain in effect until March 31, 2020. Under section 7.0.7 of the Act, an emergency declaration is terminated on the 14th day following its declaration, however the Lieutenant Governor in Council is empowered under the same section to extend or shorten the Declaration.
The Declaration of Emergency will impact Ontario’s economy, as the following establishments are legally required to immediately close: facilities providing indoor recreational programs; private schools, as defined in the Education Act; licensed child care centres; bars and restaurants, except to the extent that such facilities provide takeout food and delivery; theatres, including those offering live performances of music, dance and other art forms, as well as cinemas that show movies; and concert venues.
To date, shopping malls have not been required to close, and essential services, such as grocery stores, pharmacies and public transportation, will remain open.
Public events of more than 50 people, including in places of worship, are also prohibited. An Ontario Ministry of Health spokesperson also confirmed that weddings and funerals would not be exempt from the order.
On March 18, the Deputy Premier announced the closure of Ontario’s provincial parks, effective March 19, 2020, until April 30, 2020. The closure includes car camping, backcountry camping, roofed accommodations, day use opportunities and all public buildings.
The Ontario government may issue stricter orders as the COVID-19 situation develops within the Province, and throughout Canada.
As the situation develops, we will be providing further analysis on government announcements, as we expect provinces across Canada to issue further requirements and measures to address the COVID-19 crisis.
-  British Columbia, Provincial Health Officer, “Notice: Regional Events – March 17, 2020”.↩
-  British Columbia, Provincial Health Officer, “Class Order (mass gatherings) re: COVID-19” (March 16, 2020).↩
-  British Columbia Centre for Disease Control, “COVID-19 – Employers & Businesses” ↩
-  British Columbia, Ministry of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources, “Chief inspector of mines makes recommendations regarding COVID-19” (March 18, 2020).↩