The Fernie Chamber of Commerce has launched its own ‘Back to Basics’ campaign on COVID-19 protocols, encouraging the Fernie community to take the pandemic more seriously in order to keep businesses open.
Executive director of the chamber, Brad Parsell said that the second wave of COVID-19 cases around the world was a major threat to commercial businesses given that lock-downs and limits of travel and socializing forced operators to close their doors – whether by provincial health orders or through lack of travel.
The risk then, is that additional public health orders as a result of general non-compliance with pandemic guidelines could put the brakes on an optimistic season for tourism in the Elk Valley.
“I think business did a great job this summer managing COVID protocols, but it was often a little more simple with so many outdoor options,” he said.
“With winter coming, it’s an urgency … everywhere in the Northern hemisphere is deep into a second wave as we head in to winter.”
Though the campaign was only launched on Monday (Nov. 2), Parsell said so far the response had been positive. The campaign pushes the main tenets of public health guidelines, like maintaining social distancing, wearing masks in indoor public spaces, frequently washing hands and staying home while feeling unwell.
The chamber has distributed posters to participating businesses within Fernie, with a campaign goal of normalizing the wearing of masks indoors to bring Fernie in line with provincial expectations.
Multiple businesses in Fernie have their own signage up encouraging visitors to wear masks and maintain social distancing (including some that have mandatory mask policies) but Parsell said there was space for a community leadership organization to push harder for more compliance.
“I think a lot of people were waiting for someone (in Fernie) to say something,” he said.
“It’s difficult because our region by and large hasn’t been affected by the pandemic – yet, touch wood. That fact alone emboldens people (to not follow recommendations)” said Parsell.
“It was important that there was somebody out there locally saying yes, we should be wearing masks – it’s important that we don’t let our guard down.”
Currently, there is no provincial mask mandate in British Columbia, with Dr. Bonnie Henry changing her messaging on the value of masks as the pandemic wore on, but resisting calls for a mandatory mask policy.
Most recently, Dr. Henry has said that there was an “expectation” that people wear masks in public spaces.
“So if I’m going to the grocery store, if I’m going to the hardware store or the Costco or on public transit or need to go into renew my driver’s licence, those are times where we need to wear a mask,” she said last week.
On what’s at stake for Fernie and the Elk Valley, Parsell said that indications now were that winter was going to be busy, but “it’s ours to lose.”
“We have to remember where our visitors come from,” he said, explaining that most travellers to the Elk Valley came from Alberta – where there are more forceful mask guidelines, including in Lethbridge where the use of face coverings in indoor public settings is mandatory, rather than encouraged. Including city-operated spaces, the Lethbridge bylaw also covers buses, rideshare services, malls, businesses and churches.
The City of Fernie has not enacted any similar bylaws, but fully supports the guidelines of Dr. Bonnie Henry. Masks are mandatory for city staff and for members of the public visiting city facilities however, and council meetings are conducted in COVID-19 compliant settings with limits on numbers.
Parsell said that for tourism in the Elk Valley, the optics of the community being compliant is vital to ensuring tourism numbers don’t fall away.
“(Winter tourism) is a fiercely competitive space. If word gets out that Fernie is an unsafe place, (tourists) are just going to go to Banff or Revelstoke or Kicking Horse,” he said.
“Fernie has to be seen to be a safe place.”
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Recent numbers of COVID-19 cases in British Columbia have been on the rise, with active cases pushing towards 3,000 as of writing.
Meanwhile in neighbouring Alberta (the primary source of tourism in the Elk Valley) active cases are well above 5,000.
Earlier this week, Interior Health reported there were 93 active cases in the region it covered in British Columbia, with the vast majority of cases in the province in the Fraser Health region of Greater Vancouver. BC health authorities reported an increase of 1,120 cases over the weekend.