As provincial and federal measures to contain the novel coronavirus become more and more drastic, so too have the precautions made by businesses and institutions in Squamish.
In addition to earlier mass event cancellations, many facilities — including staples of the municipality like the library and recreation centre — have been shut down to halt the potential spread of COVID-19.
These come after senior levels of government asked for border closures and cancellations of gatherings.
Perhaps the biggest turning point was on March 12, when B.C.'s provincial health officer asked the public to take drastic measures to stem the spread of the disease. A day before that, COVID-19 was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization.
Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry asked the public to cancel events involving 250 people or more. She also implored those who arrived from trips outside the country to self-quarantine for at least 14 days before returning to work or school.
Later, even more sweeping measures were enacted.
On March 16, Henry called for the cancellation of all events involving 50 people or more. She acknowledged that some establishments may not be able to meet that requirement, and may therefore have to shut down.
“I would expect that most bars and entertainment places will not be able to meet that criteria, so we are considering that,” said Henry.
“I think it’s a challenge with restaurants and cafes, and slightly different where they could possibly maintain separation of people in those settings or be looking at takeaway services….I know it’s going to be hard on businesses.”
Her order will be in place until May 30 and may be subject to revision or extension.
She said discussions were being held as to what will happen with schools.
Provincial Health Minister Adrian Dix said that in anticipation of demand, he is asking health authorities to start registering non-practising and retired health care professionals, as well as those who may be in other jurisdictions and the armed forces.
“Canadians, and people in British Columbia, are prepared to fight,” he said.
All non-essential surgeries in the province are being put on hold indefinitely in order to make room in hospitals, as authorities wish to be prepared should large numbers of people need intensive-care treatment. Casinos have also been ordered to shut their doors.
“With the renewals of prescriptions and for sick notes — there’s no need for those things at this time. We have to reserve our primary care services for the services that are required,” said Dix.
The province’s announcement followed on the same day right after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that Canada would be closing its borders to all countries except the U.S.. Services vital to the movement of goods would still be allowed, however.
Trudeau held off on barring American visitors, saying that the country is tightly integrated with Canada. This was a move that Henry and Dix disagreed with, as they called for a ban on U.S. visitors.
“We remain concerned that access to visitors from the U.S. continues to be allowed, given the situation in King and Snohomish counties,” he said, referencing the spread COVID-19 in Washington State.
“It’s our strong view and it’s our strong message that visitors from the United States not come to British Columbia. Don’t come, because at this moment that is the wrong thing to do.”
Trudeau also instructed authorities to prevent anyone with COVID-19-like symptoms from entering Canada. A support program will be put in place to help asymptomatic Canadians get on a plane, he said. Financial assistance will also be made available to help with the costs of returning home.
“Let me be clear — if you’re abroad, it’s time for you to come home,” Trudeau said.
Vancouver Coastal Health, or VCH, which is in charge of the region that includes the Squamish area, has told The Chief that all COVID-19 calls are being directed to the Ministry of Health, but testing is available in Squamish for people who need it.
As of March 16, there have been 103 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in B.C., including 16 linked to the Lynn Valley Care Centre in North Vancouver. Three people have died, all of them residents of the care centre. This brings the total death count in the province to four. Six people are in acute care and five have fully recovered. All others are self-isolating at home.
There are confirmed cases in all of B.C.'s five health authority regions. When asked if any of the cases have been confirmed to be in Squamish, Henry said in a statement to The Chief that anyone at risk of exposure to the virus will be contacted by public health officials.
"We will not be identifying the specific location of confirmed cases unless public health providers cannot be certain they have contacted all those who need to be contacted and who therefore might be a risk to the public," Henry said in an email to The Chief.
The provincial government has also said it will not name the communities where the people with confirmed cases are residents.
"We want people who have symptoms to contact us, and to feel safe contacting us, knowing their privacy will be protected, so the steps to protect the health and safety for all can be taken. This is why privacy is important to everyone. It allows public health providers to do the work they need to do to keep everybody safe," Henry said.
Following Henry's advisory about public gatherings, local action was swift.
Taking a cue from mass cancellations being enacted throughout the province, some events in Squamish were shelved.
Perhaps the biggest event to be affected by this was the much-loved annual Guns N' Hoses charity hockey tournament. The District of Squamish put out an announcement saying organizers intend to reschedule the event.
"While not quite the NHL, but certainly more fun, the battle for reigning local supremacy will be played out at a future date and time," the municipality said in a press release.
Another high-profile event was affected. Organizers told The Chief that the annual Soccerfest tournament was cancelled. It was scheduled for April 18 to 19.
Head organizer Jose Oreamuno said this decision was made after taking into account advice from BC Soccer and health authorities.
Municipal facilities have been shut as a result of Henry’s order.
“This directive makes it very challenging to keep services and facilities running and so we have made the decision today to close certain facilities and focus our employee’s efforts towards delivery of essential services, in order to protect both staff and the public and support the containment of the virus,” said Mayor Karen Elliott in a news release.
As a result, Brennan Park, the 55 Activity Centre and the library closed indefinitely as of 5 p.m. March 16.
Municipal hall services have been moved to online-only.
Council will deliberate at Tuesday’s meeting with regards to future meetings.
“We have a responsibility to ensure that essential business continues to be available to Squamish, and provide the ability for Council to make decisions in this unprecedented situation. We do not want to move forward any Council business, however, that would typically invite meaningful public engagement and so agendas will be reviewed with that lens,” Elliott continued.
Quest University shuts its doors
Quest University's high-profile school closure came as a surprise to many in town.
The university said that shutting its doors and emptying its dormitories was a precautionary measure. It will now be shifting to online classes. Because all classes will go ahead, albeit in a different form, the school says it will not be reimbursing tuition.
Students have been asked to leave their residences by midnight, March 20.
The school says it's still figuring out details regarding whether or not meal cards and dorm fees will be reimbursed.
Business associations in Squamish were keeping a close eye on the health announcements, though as of press deadline, they had not made statements regarding potential closures.
Edward Archibald, president of the Downtown Business Improvement Association, said he only knows of one business in the association that has chosen to close as part of the provincial announcements — Wild and Heart.
Aside from that, he said the group is not asking its members to shut down, but follow the direction of the province’s health officers with respect to extra vigilance in cleaning and disinfecting, as well as limiting special events.
“Most of our members are already starting to reel with the feeling of the sharp and sudden slow down,” he said “Many of our members are small businesses and extended closures will have longer-term negative impacts without government support and intervention financially. I know several of our other members are considering their options in closing down and as they share with us their intentions we will be happy to comment further.”
Archibald said an announcement would be coming shortly.
The Squamish Chamber of Commerce said that’s prepared information resources to help businesses navigate the changing times.
Executive director Louise Walker said this included a business preparedness guide, among other things.
The association is also gathering feedback from businesses so it can let the government know how to help businesses mitigate damage and recover, she said.
She said a specific web page at the association’s site has been dedicated to how COVID-19 developments relate to business.
In the Sea to Sky, School District 48 has cancelled all school-related international trips from students and staff. On March 17, Premier John Horgan announced schools are suspended until further notice.
On March 12, the Minister of Health and B.C.'s provincial health officer released a joint statement that said, "Over spring break the B.C. government will also work with school districts to develop procedures to be implemented with students and staff when classes resume."
In a letter to parents, provided to The Chief by SD48, Supt. Lisa McCullough said, "any student absent after spring break will be supported each day with any missed learning activities."
Parents are asked to inform the schools about any absences. During spring break, Vancouver Coastal Health will be completing walk-through inspections of schools to check cleaning protocols.
"We definitely have the appropriate soaps and sanitizers in our schools, we're cleaning down all of our school buses, we've hired extra staff to clean all the surfaces. There's no budgetary constraints," the school district's director of instruction, Phil Clarke, said at the March 11 board meeting. "People are getting overtime if we need to in order to make sure that all of our surfaces are clean, thinking it through from the doors you touch to the keyboards we use. Again, at the end of the day, the most important thing is to regularly wash your hands."
Clarke said the information shared with parents, staff and students comes from VCH, the deputy minister's office or the Government of Canada. The school district will continue to post updates about COVID-19 on their website.
He added medical health officers said students with cold-like symptoms can still attend school, but anyone with flu-like symptoms cannot.
"Full stop. You shouldn't be coming to school anyway," Clarke said of those with flu-like symptoms.
"The ministry of education... asks that the public and the school community not make assumptions about the risk of students or staff based on their ethnicity or travel history," Clarke added.
Local businesses that focus on working up a sweat in groups are also stepping up their cleaning and awareness initiatives.
On March 12, The Sound Martial Arts in Squamish decided to temporarily close its doors to do an extreme clean after hearing an unconfirmed case of someone who possibly had the virus visiting the gym. A health authority did not confirm such a case, and one of the Sound's owners, Jamie O'Connor, said no health authorities have contacted him.
O'Connor said they contacted the Canadian Centre for Disease Control and explained the situation to get some advice. He said they are following CDC's advice to continue routine cleaning and remind members to wash their hands properly, and the gym was told it wasn't necessary to shut down.
"We took the extra precaution to close the gym and we've been in every day since just doing an extensive clean. It gets cleaned every day anyway, but we're doing a deep clean. One yesterday, we're doing one today and doing one tomorrow. We'll be opening again on Monday," he said.
"We're proud of what we did. We're not happy about how it could affect our business, but the safety of the community and the members is more important to us."
Several family-friendly facilities are temporarily closed. On March 12, the play place at the Squamish McDonalds closed. Happimess has shut its doors from March 16 to 30. Squishy's Fun Zone has closed to all but pre-booked parties as of March 16.
The Squamish McDonald's remains open, Viole Jamir, the daytime shift manager said they are cleaning it more often than before. She told The Chief the staff has been instructed to wipe and sanitize all of the "heavy traffic" areas throughout the restaurant every half an hour.As of March 16, a major focal point for Squamish’s climbing community has chosen to temporarily pull the plug on its operations.
Ground Up Climbing Centre has announced it will be shutting down.
“To be clear, we are not currently aware of any cases of COVID-19 within Ground Up or within our community of members,” reads a letter from owner Lauren Watson. “These measures are precautionary.”
The gym said it will be closed until April 11. A decision will be made about reopening then.
Yoga studios started putting out cancellation notices on their websites and social media.
North Yoga’s website says that they’ve decided to shut their doors.
“It’s with heavy hearts that this notice is to inform you that [we] will be closing our studio for a week starting tomorrow, Monday March 16th,” reads the site.
“As we move through the next few days and weeks we will of course keep you informed.”
Modo Yoga also announced online that they’ve temporarily closed.
Ashtanga Yoga also put out a suspension on classes, as did others.
At the Squamish Ninja Gym, Gary McFarlane told The Chief in an email, "We are taking precautions at the gym but I think the most important thing we're doing is not panicking. To date, we haven't seen an impact on our bookings as we don't fit into the categories that are considered risky. We have a large space where no one is stacked on top of each other, providing safe room to play."
In a message to gym-goers, Ninja Gym said it is wiping down obstacle surfaces, handles and switches, providing hand sanitizer and soap dispensers, and asking all to wash their hands and avoid touching their faces.
Much of Squamish's economy depends on tourism, and the province's recent advisories now threaten to reduce the number of visitors to town.
Lesley Weeks of Tourism Squamish said that her organization is monitoring the situation closely.
"We remain active in the marketplace from a marketing perspective and are promoting regional travel with hyper-local campaigns aimed at the Greater Vancouver and Fraser Valley markets," wrote Weeks in a communication to members.
She urged operators to be understanding of their guests.
"Whether they may cancel or not, we all must continue to be positive advocates of Squamish," said Weeks.
Some of the suggestions she gave included offering guests the ability to reschedule without penalty and being flexible with cancellation policies.
"It is important to keep the key messaging about travel to B.C. and Squamish as positive and realistic as possible," she said. "B.C. continues to be a safe travel destination. Working together to maintain our reputation as a safe, enjoyable destination is key to our long-term reputation and sustainability."
In the meantime, Tourism Squamish is asking its members to take a survey so it can better understand the effects that COVID is having on businesses.
One of the biggest tourist attractions in town said that it was taking extra measures to make sure its guests are in a clean and safe environment.
In an advisory posted to its website, the Sea to Sky Gondola said it's regularly deep-cleaning its cabins. It's also allowing guests to ride in cabins with only members of their group.
On March 16, the gondola stopped selling tickets and closed its facilities, aside from washroom access, in an effort to reduce crowd sizes. The statement said the gondola will also be limiting how many people can wait in line, and encourage social distancing. Annual passholders can still ride the gondola at the time of the announcement.They're also sanitizing their facilities twice daily and cleaning high-use surfaces more frequently and installing more hand sanitizers.
As of March 12, guests at the Executive Suites Hotel and Resort in Squamish must sign a document upon check-in confirming they have not visited certain countries within 21 days and are not experiencing coronavirus-related symptoms, Anthony Lamb, the regional general manager for the Squamish and Whistler locations told The Chief.
"Every guest signs something, and ultimately, we're not taking people into the hotel if they're unable to sign that," Lamb said.
He added it's not intended to seem like they're trying to keep people out.
"It's more for the people who are coming in to have reassurance that the hotel is doing everything it can to keep this a risk-free environment within the hotel," Lamb said.
The corporate office has also given the Executive Suites an extra labour budget specifically for sanitation and an additional cleaning team.
"There's definitely a reduction in people travelling right now, so there's an impact on business at this time," Lamb said.
Another industry feeling the impacts of COVID-19 fears is festivals. Big-name multi-day festivals including the 2020 Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival have been postponed. In Squamish, Constellation Festival is in the midst of planning its second annual weekend in July.
Tamara Stanners, one of the Constellation Festival organizers, told The Chief that they are monitoring the situation closely. They previously anticipated announcing the performance line-up on April 7 and beginning ticket sales on April 9, but are waiting and watching the news of the virus.
"Our number one goal is obviously that everybody is safe and healthy," Stanners said. Everything about this is impacting the planet in such an interesting way and the spin-offs are everywhere. We're all kind of in the same position, watching, waiting, really analyzing it and making sure that all of us are making the best moves for the health and safety of everyone.
"I believe that public gatherings are going to be happening again. I can't foresee a future where human beings aren't allowed to gather anymore."
A local travel agent also shared some perspective on the situation.
"I have been a travel agent for 24 years and have never seen anything remotely close to what is happening now," said Christine Elliott in an email to The Chief. "Most incidents are isolated and temporary to specific areas, like a volcano erupting, hurricanes, etc. Or if an airline goes under."
Elliott took note of Disneyland's closure and the suspensions of Princess Cruises.
"These actions are unprecedented in my experience," she said.
Elliott added that the industry is pulling together to help each other out.
Shortly before the provincial self-quarantine advisory for travellers, she noted that families were going to Mexico, Hawaii and the Caribbean for spring break.
After the latest news hit, she said people have been reconsidering their travel dates.
While there has been no official order to daycares, at least some of one has chosen to shut their doors.
Balsam Montessori Academy has closed until further notice.
“With known cases in Squamish, we believe it is time to take social distancing very seriously,” wrote Tatiana Osadchaya in an email to The Chief. “We keep looking for updates from B.C.”
Carol Misquitta of Busy Bees daycare says that she’s waiting for information from Vancouver Coastal Health. In the meantime, she’s staying open.
However, there has been a decline in attendance, she said. On March 16, there were supposed to be six children, but only one was dropped off.
“We’re taking it one moment at a time,” she said.
Childcare provider Michelle Graye of Squamish Montessori School says they're closely monitoring the latest advisories from VCH.
At the moment, they're taking greater care to make sure children wash their hands more often and properly.
“At this time we are following all advice by our Health Authority,” she said. “We are open and plan to remain open this week unless we are told otherwise. We are closed next week for one week for our March break.”
The company that owns Squamish Terminals is calling the COVID-19 outbreak "unprecedented."
As a port, the terminal is in a unique position, given that it transports goods and people from far and wide.
While the province has asked people arriving from out of country to self-quarantine, B.C.'s health officer later clarified that this doesn't extend to those working in industries that deal in the movement of people and goods.
In an email to The Chief, Brad Eshleman, the president of the Western Stevedoring Group of Companies, said that terminals are responding proactively.
"Our priority remains the health and safety of all our employees, our families, our business partners and the communities we operate in, as well as continuing to provide a high level of service to our customers," said Eshleman. "Our team is closely monitoring the situation, working with Industry Partners, Government and Health Authorities."
As a precaution, the terminal is requiring several measures to be taken.
For instance, vessels must report the health status of their crews before berthing.
The port is increasing access to hand washing facilities and sanitizers and requiring employees with any sign of illness to stay home.
Unnecessary travel is being restricted and work-from-home procedures have been set up where possible.
"We have set up a COVID-19 response team to monitor the risk on a daily basis and ensure all possible precautionary measures are in place, including our operations at Squamish Terminals," said Eshleman.
"As a society we are facing difficult and stressful times. We feel it is critically important we work together and do everything possible to minimize the spread of this virus."
*Please note, with this pandemic, things are changing by the minute. We will be making updates to this story often.