‘Worrying’ number of tourists from outside B.C. prompts Whistler doctor to call for travel ban

An emergency room doctor in Whistler is calling on the B.C. government to restrict travel from other provinces after seeing a “worrying” number of patients from Ontario and Quebec over the holidays.

Dr. Annie Gareau, an emergency physician at Whistler Health Care Centre, told Radio-Canada she’s concerned that an influx of visitors from outside the region could lead to uncontrolled spread of COVID-19, overwhelming the health-care system.

“We have a limited capacity. Our waiting room is small, so definitely at one point in time between Christmas and New Year’s it was unsettling the amount of patients that were in the clinic,” she said.

“I think we need to do like the Atlantic provinces did and I think we need to restrict inter-provincial travel until the numbers are going down.”

A public health advisory has been in place across B.C. since Nov. 19 cautioning against all non-essential travel. Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry has said skiers should stick to their local slopes — for example, people who live in Metro Vancouver should limit themselves to the North Shore mountains.

However, an advisory does not have the legal power of a public health order.

Reliance on personal responsibility

Some ski resorts have cancelled reservations from non-local visitors in response to Henry’s advice, but a representative of Vail Resorts, which owns Whistler Blackcomb, told CBC last month that it is asking guests to take “personal responsibility” for following public health advice.

Little of that personal responsibility was apparent at the Whistler Health Care Centre over the holidays in December, said Gareau.

“I would say the majority of patients that came to the clinic between Christmas and New Year were not Whistlerites. The majority were from the Lower Mainland,” Gareau said.

“And then — surprising and worrying — was a lot of people from out of province, mainly Ontario and Quebec.”

Some residents of the Sea-to-Sky region are concerned about an influx of out-of-province visitors to Whistler. (Eric Berger/Whistler Blackcomb)

According to Tourism Whistler, people from outside of B.C. represent a bit more than 10 per cent of overnight visitors so far this season.

Both Ontario and Quebec are currently struggling to bring rampant COVID-19 transmission under control.

Ontario is implementing a stay-at-home order on Thursday and Premier Doug Ford has said “the system is on the brink of collapse.” Quebec now has an 8 p.m. curfew for residents to prevent spread of the disease.

‘We just need to stay in our provinces’

Gareau’s concerns are shared by Maude Cyr, a resident of nearby Pemberton, who said she was shocked to encounter a large group of tourists from Quebec during a recent day of skiing at Whistler.

Cyr said when she questioned them about the wisdom of travelling cross-country right now, they told her B.C. has fewer cases than Quebec and is therefore safer for them.

“It was hard to say anything,” she recalled.

Cyr worries about the stress these travellers are causing for people who work in the tourism industry and don’t want to bring COVID-19 home to their families and neighbours.

“I’d like to remind people from other places that small communities have small facilities and clinics, so if there is an expansion of cases here, we are in trouble,” she said.

“We just need to stay in our provinces and enjoy what we have in our own provinces.”

Her concerns come as another B.C. ski resort community has seen significant transmission of the novel coronavirus connected to staff housing and parties. As of Tuesday, a total of 162 cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed at Big White Ski Resort near Kelowna, according to Interior Health.

Representatives of the B.C. health ministry have yet to respond to requests for comment on calls for stricter travel regulations.

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