Messaging from Tourism Fernie encourages visitors to explore Fernie at a later date. Photo Submitted

RDEK calls for provincial border closure

A letter calling for stronger measures was sent to the provincial health officer last week

The Regional District of East Kootenay unanimously voted to pass a resolution calling on the provincial government to provide clarity around travel between communities during the COVID-19 pandemic. The board believes there should be stronger measures for stopping the spread of the virus between communities, including provincial border closures and more.

The announcement from the RDEK came shortly before Easter weekend, a time that would normally see thousands of out of town visitors flocking to the East Kootenay region for vacation. Although we live in what many might call a mountain paradise, our local health services, grocery stores and other essential service providers may be ill equipped to handle a large surge of people.

“As a region we are united in our desire to reduce the impacts of this virus on our health care system and our communities,” said RDEK board chair Rob Gay. “While the provincial health officers on both sides of the border have been clear in their messaging that people need to be staying home, that message is not being heeded. We are gravely concerned about the potential impacts on our small rural hospitals, front line workers and communities.”

In the letter sent by the RDEK to the provincial health officer, they suggested several measures such as closing provincial borders to non essential traffic, closing private campgrounds and prohibiting overnight camping in the backcountry in order to deter people from visiting.

“We are urging all non resident property owners in our region to please stay in their primary homes. There should be absolutely no travelling back and forth. In addition, we are seeing groups of campers in the backcountry, groups of mudboggers in the Koocanusa area, several families staying together in vacation homes, and more,” stressed Gay. “We want to be very clear that this is not just a province to province issue. This is also about behaviours locally within our region.”

According to the RDEK, the board is hoping to see additional safety measures put in place sooner rather than later. They further noted that local governments do not have the tools or ability to make the changes themselves, which is why they are calling on the province to make the changes.

It may seem strange to deter tourists from coming to a region that thrives on tourism, but such is the reality of COVID-19. According to Jikke Gyorki, executive director of Tourism Fernie, tourism usually generates $150 million of visitor spending within our community each year. This money pours into our community and allows businesses to flourish.

Still, the message remains. Explore Fernie… later.

“It’s important to flatten the COVID-19 curve,” said Gyorki. “The sooner we can get through this challenge, the sooner businesses can reopen, employees can return to work and visitors can return and spend money in our community that relies on it. Tourism is one of Fernie’s key economic drivers and job creators…Is it hard to tell people not to visit our beautiful town? Yes, of course, but it is important at this time in order to flatten the curve.”

Since the RDEK released their letter on April 3, there have been some significant changes and restrictions made. As of 1 p.m. on Wednesday, April 8, camping and motorized recreation around Lake Koocanusa has been restricted. Overnight camping in the area has been prohibited, as has the use of motorized off road vehicles.

Another measure taken to keep people away from popular tourism destinations came from the B.C. government on April 8. The province announced the full closure of all provincial parks and extended the camping ban, which includes both front and backcountry camping, until the end of May.

According to the BC Parks website, many parks are experiencing peak levels of use that have resulted in full parkings lots, packed trail heads and super busy trails. Although the desire to get outside and explore is understandable, this influx of people makes physical distancing very difficult and is therefore a public health risk.

Although the province is taking steps to ensure communities like ours are protected from an onslaught of visitors, when asked about closing provincial borders in a press conference on April 7, Dr. Bonnie Henry said “It’s not something I believe I have the authority to do, to be honest, and it’s not something that I believe is necessary at this point.”

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