Nations cautiously ease restrictions as COVID-19 cases decline in B.C.

Denise Titian, June 12, 2020

Surfers walk from the water after a surf on Long Beach, on Thursday, June 11, with the Tla-o-qui-aht community of Esowista in the background. (Melissa Renwick photo)

West Coast Vancouver Island — 

The Province of British Columbia is in Phase 3 of it’s COVID-19 reopening plan, meaning restaurants, gyms and salons are allowed to reopen at half capacity and with strict guidelines.

But first nations leaders are wary of opening up their territories.

“There are concerns of when people do visit the beaches even though they are closed,” said Elmer Frank of Tla-o-qui-aht. “Rightfully so, our communities are more vulnerable and [it] could be detrimental should the virus come to our communities.” 

Curtis Dick of Ahousaht concurs. In a video message to members, the Emergency Operations Centre manager noted that people are still being infected in the Lower Mainland and Washington State.

Dick works closely with emergency services personnel in Tofino and their concern is that if an outbreak were to occur in the Clayoquot Sound region, Tofino General Hospital does not have the resources to respond.

In a joint statement Adrian Dix, minister of health, and Dr. Bonnie Henry, B.C.'s provincial health officer, reported on June 12 there were 16 new COVID-19 cases, bringing the provincial total to 2,709. There are 187 active cases in B.C. For the first time since June 5 a death was reported, bringing the provincial toll to 168.

On a more positive note, there are no new or active cases in the Island Health Region, which encompasses Vancouver Island. The BC Center for Disease Control reports that there were 130 confirmed COVID-19 cases on Vancouver Island; 125 cases recovered and five have died.

There have been no new reported cases on Vancouver Island since May 7, thanks to the early protective measures leadership took to protect the people. But Dr. Henry warns that there are still active cases in other nearby regions and she reminds people to be careful.

Nuu-chah-nulth leadership are heeding Dr. Henry’s advice and are taking a more cautious approach to reopening their communities.

On June 9 the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council issued a statement regarding public access to the Ḥahuułi of Nuu-chah-nulth Ha’wiih.

“As Nuu-chah-nulth, we must take extraordinary measures, that go far above and beyond Provincial and Federal Health Guidelines, to protect our communities and members from this devastating disease-COVID-19,” said NTC Vice-President Mariah Charleson.

While British Columbia is in phase 3 of re-opening the province for business, Nuu-chah-nulth leadership will continue protective measures to keep their villages safe.

Elmer Frank is the Tla-o-qui-aht Emergency Operations Center director. He says that his nation has developed a plan for slowly opening up their communities by gradually easing off of protective restrictions.

“In each phase, it includes that we must be prepared to go back to full lockdown in the event that there may be outbreaks and we are carefully monitoring spikes of increases of the virus,” Frank said in an email.

For now, Tla-o-qui-aht communities of Esowista, Ty-Histanis and Opitsaht remain closed to the public. Residents and Tla-o-qui-aht members are the only ones permitted to enter the villages.

Frank says that they are advising members that wish to increase their “social bubbles” to do it carefully. For example, urban members wishing to visit family at home must be healthy.

“Right now, the people allowed at Esowista are family of Tla-o-qui-aht members who live on Vancouver Island,” Frank stated. “It is likely that our communities will be monitored with security at the entrance at least throughout the summer so that those who enter our communities are within social bubbles of our members, and thus will help with contact tracing in the event that there are any cases reported in our communities.”

Additionally, there will be no large gatherings in small spaces permitted for the time being.

“We are advising there still needs to be proper social and physical distancing that needs to be practiced,” he added.

Long Beach is a tourist mecca in the summer and it sits right next to Esowista. For that reason, TFN has declared the beach at and north of Incinerator Rock will be closed to visitors and tourists. This includes Schooner Cove. 

Frank noted that only those traveling for essential purposes are permitted in TFN territory at least until June 15, 2020. He advises that surfers and other tourists to check Health Canada and provincial websites for information. 

On June 12, Ha-Shilth-Sa Reporter Melissa Renwick went out to Long Beach and reported that the parking lot was roughly one third full.

“I saw one license plate from Manitoba, one from Alberta, two from Ontario and two from California, within an hour span,” she said. “There were many people strolling the beach with their cameras in hand and one man had a selfie stick out as he panned the entire beach.”  

In Ahousaht, Elected Chief Greg Louie says that protective measures will remain in place at Ahousaht for the foreseeable future, even though Vancouver Island has no active cases. Louie is concerned about the virus coming to the island as tourists pour in.

In Ahousaht the curfew is still enforced by tribal police that have been deputized by the Ha’wiih. The same crew monitors the docks as members come and go and they patrol the village, ensuring people are indoors.

In addition, Ahousaht Guardians patrol the waters and beaches in their territory. If they come across hikers or kayakers, for example, they ask them to leave the area.

Louie pointed out that Premier John Horgan recently extended the provincial state of emergency to June 23.

Ahousaht has a policy in place for members that wish to come home for visits. Members must contact the nation to pass through a screening questionnaire. Louie says that if they are approved for a visit they must wear PPE (Personal Protective Equipment).

Beginning June 15, contractors that have passed health screening will be permitted to come to Ahousaht to work on major projects Ahousaht has on the go, including the wastewater treatment plant, road paving and drainage projects.

“Each employee will complete and sign a health questionnaire and they will be given a photo identification tag with the Ahousaht logo so that they can board boats in Tofino to Ahousaht,” said Louie. Workers have been instructed not to interact with locals in the community.

Louie says they don’t know when things will go back to normal.

“We are going day by day, week by week; we can’t let our guard down, yet,” he added.