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Large protest gatherings pose COVID 19 risks: B.C. health officials

June 2, 2020   by Dirk Meissner - THE CANADIAN PRESS

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VICTORIA – Large public gatherings, including anti-racism protests, pose health risks during a pandemic, British Columbia’s top health officials said Monday.

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said people in B.C. have the right to protest and express their feelings, but warned there could be COVID-19 health consequences associated with a weekend protest in downtown Vancouver.

“Peaceful demonstration is our right, one that is important to all of us, but we cannot forget we are still in the middle of a pandemic,” she said at a news conference.

Henry said she saw many people wearing masks and practising safe distancing but she urged those who attended to monitor their health over the coming days.

“We also know right now large gatherings remain very high risk, even outdoors,” she said. “Those who were there (Sunday), you may have put yourself at risk.”

An estimated 3,500 people gathered in Vancouver following protests across the United States over the death of George Floyd, an African-American man who died in Minneapolis after a white police officer pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck for several minutes.

B.C. has a public health order limiting the size of gatherings to 50 people.

“Weigh your options, think about the impacts, particularly if you are a health-care worker or have vulnerable people in your circle, in your household, in your family,” Henry said.

The province reported 24 new COVID-19 cases since Saturday and one death of an elderly resident at a Metro Vancouver long-term care home.

B.C. now has 2,597 cases of COVID-19 and there have been 165 deaths. The province says 2,207 people have recovered from the illness.

Health Minister Adrian Dix echoed Henry’s views against large gatherings, suggesting people explore innovative ways of expression and protest that protect everybody’s health during the pandemic.

“We have to collectively use our imaginations,” said Dix, adding rallies could be split into numerous smaller groups rather than one large gathering.

Earlier Monday, Finance Minister Carole James announced small businesses struggling to pay rent this month will be protected from eviction by an emergency government order that encourages landlords to take advantage of a federal relief program.

Landlords who choose not to apply for the federal government’s Canada Emergency Commercial Rent Assistance program, launched May 24, will be prohibited from evicting their small business tenants for unpaid rent, she said.

“This order restricts lease terminations, rent repayment lawsuits and the repossession of small businesses, goods and property,” James told a news conference. “This emergency order will be in place while the federal program is in place.”

The B.C. eviction protection program could be extended if the federal relief program goes beyond June, she said.

The federal program offers reductions of 75 per cent in monthly rent to small businesses by providing forgivable loans to landlords.

James said the federal and B.C. governments will cover 50 per cent of the rent payments, while the tenants are responsible for 25 per cent of the rent and landlords cover the remaining 25 per cent.

“It’s a federally designed and delivered program that offers forgivable loans to commercial landlords who have tenants who’ve lost significant income during the pandemic, at least 70 per cent,” she said.

“There are landlords who have not applied for the relief and unless the landlord applies with the program, the program isn’t available to small business tenants.”

James said she does not have current data on how many landlords have applied for the program or how many are eligible but have not registered.

The B.C. order is a measure to fill a gap in the federal program and aims to help small businesses endure hardships during the pandemic, she said.

James said the emergency order should be viewed as an encouragement to landlords to allow small business to rebuild as it drives B.C.’s economic recovery in the coming months.

“To make the move to encourage that support, I think, is certainly the right thing to do,” she said. “For landlords to have a reliable tenant, who is there in your business and who you have a relationship with, is a benefit to the landlord as well.”

Feature image by Ashley Landis, The Associated Press

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