Too little, too late? — Americans entering BC

On July 3, 2020, Second Opinion QB published a piece in our Breakers section suggesting that it was time for BC to issue decals for vehicles with U.S. plates whose driver and passengers were authorized to enter BC. We felt this practice could help deter Americans from skirting around BC pandemic regulations, and also significantly reduce instances of BC residents confronting people driving vehicles with U.S. plates but who have adhered to our rules. Not only would BC residents (and American visitors) be safer, they would feel safer.

Effective July 31, U.S. vehicles entering BC will now be tagged at the border. The same day BC announced 50 new confirmed cases of the COVID-19 virus, the highest daily tally of confirmed cases in BC since early April.

On July 30, the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) announced that vehicles with U.S. plates will be “tagged” to confirm that the owners are authorized to be in BC under certain conditions. As reported by CBC, “every driver will be given a tag to hang from their rear-view mirror ‘to support compliance,’ the [CBSA] press release says. That tag will include the date by which they must leave Canada.” This new border entry measure became effective July 31, the same day that BC announced 50 new confirmed cases of the COVID-19 virus have been detected, the highest daily tally of confirmed cases in BC since early April.

With the recent sharp increase of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Alberta and Saskatchewan, and the pandemic raging in Washington state, California, Arizona and Texas, this is a welcome reversal of policy and tone, judging by the recent remarks of Premier John Horgan, Health Minister Adrian Dix and Dr. Bonnie Henry, BC’s provincial health officer. It is nonetheless a half measure that may not do the job.

Although as early as July 2, Premier Horgan had been talking tough about the so-called “Alaska loophole,” as reported by CBC, he took no concrete action, and instead urged Americans to “go directly to Alaska. If you’re heading to Alaska, you don’t go through Port Renfrew,”

At the same time, Dr. Bonnie Henry downplayed the issue. Her comments contrasted starkly with Premier Horgan’s understanding of the situation, obtained after having talked to community leaders from across the province who, he said, had provided various credible examples of concern. Dr. Henry said she “has heard of stories of people exploiting the ‘Alaska loophole’ but in very small numbers.” She stated “most American licence plates belong to Canadians citizens who have returned home.” Frankly speaking, at this time there is no way Dr. Henry can be sure how many Americans may be skirting the law, or even whether “most” U.S. plates belonged to Canadian citizens.

And even if only one American skirts the law, if they show up at a downtown Vancouver hotel for a holiday, as one couple reportedly did without self-isolating, one person is all it might take to cause a cascade of infection — especially if they are coming from a COVID-19 hotspot such as Washington state. That couple reported that, when they crossed the border into Canada, they had not been informed by the Canadian Border Services Agency that they had to self-isolate for 14 days.

However, things apparently moved more quickly after a reporter informed Health Minister Adrian Dix and Dr. Bonnie Henry during a press conference last week that Yukon had implemented a system to monitor out-of-province vehicles. Questioned as to whether BC would be following Yukon’s example of issuing visitor decals for eligible vehicles with out-of-territory licence plates, Adrian Dix said he was not aware of what Yukon had done, but “would not rule out anything.” A week earlier, Yukon’s Chief Medical Officer of Health had announced the following notice entitled Visitor decals available for eligible vehicles with out-of-territory licence plates:

As of July 20, 2020, some vehicles with out-of-territory licence plates will be provided with a visitor decal when they enter Yukon at a border check station staffed by Government of Yukon enforcement officers. Visitor decals will be provided to critical service providers and travellers who have completed their 14-day self-isolation as required, including: Canadians with plates from jurisdictions outside of British Columbia, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut; Americans providing essential services in Yukon; and foreign residents who have been permitted entry to Canada by the Canadian Border Services Agency. The green visitor decal placed on the driver’s side of the windshield indicates that the occupants are not required to self-isolate and the vehicle is authorized to travel in and around Yukon. People in Yukon with out-of-territory plates can pick up a visitor decal at the Emergency Measures Office located at 60 Norseman Road in Whitehorse. People living in Yukon communities can contact to request a visitor decal. Eligible visitors must first have completed their 14-day self-isolation period, if it was required.

Yet, as late as July 27, Premier Horgan was still resisting taking any concrete action to stop Americans who may not follow BC regulations, and instead offered hypothetical scenarios to explain possible reasons why American vehicles were in BC, and exhorted British Columbians to give their drivers the benefit of the doubt. CTV News reported that Horgan said he “can’t tell people how to respond when seeing a different licence plate but judging people by where their vehicle is registered does not often tell a complete story of their circumstances.” Horgan said British Columbia residents should also consider the individual circumstances of other people before making judgments based on their licence plates. ‘I ask people to walk a mile in other people’s shoes and try and live those experiences before you’re judgmental,’ he said.” The problem is, there is (was) no way to tell what sort of “shoes” visiting Americans were actually walking in.

Then, bizarrely and impractically, Horgan also advised people with U.S. plates who wished to avoid feeling harassed, to “take the bus or ride a bike, ” and suggested that “drivers change to B.C. plates to avoid trouble from residents who are concerned about the spread of COVID-19.”  

Does this mean that Premier Horgan doesn’t have faith in the CBSA system? Should the CBSA and BC have used Yukon’s previously implemented, and more comprehensive, system instead?