COVID-19 restrictions: B.C. gyms reopening this week, other measures extended

The B.C. government has extended most of the COVID-19 restrictions imposed last month to combat the spread of Omicron, but is allowing gyms to reopen under new guidelines.

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said the high levels of COVID-19 transmission still occurring across the province, as well as record numbers of test-positive patients in hospital, mean the bulk of the current measures must remain in place until Feb. 16, at the earliest.

Those restrictions limit the size of household gatherings, ban indoor events such as weddings receptions, prohibit bars and nightclubs from operating, and strictly regulate the behaviour of diners in restaurants.

Some of the measures have been controversial since they were announced in mid-December, when little was known about the highly-transmissible Omicron variant, but Henry said it's become clear that they have made a difference.

"I know that many people felt that we were overreacting," she added.

"My challenge is to find that balance of making sure we're doing just enough to address the situations we're in and not allowing our system to be overwhelmed."

The decision to close fitness facilities in particular was met with much pushback from the industry, which argued that helping people stay healthy, both mentally and physically, should be a priority nearly two years into the pandemic.

Henry said after developing new guidelines in collaboration with the Fitness Industry Council of Canada, the province is taking the "cautious step" of allowing gyms to reopen on Jan. 20.

Previous vaccine passport requirements remain in place, while the new guidelines include a minimum space of seven square metres around each person exercising.

"In addition, masks must be worn at all times, except when exercising, as we know that can cause challenges for some people," Henry said. "However, I will say it is absolutely encouraged during exercise, depending on what you're doing, for most people, given what we know about Omicron right now."

COMBATING 'NARRATIVE' AROUND VARIANT

The decision to extend most of B.C.'s restrictions was based on the increased understanding of how Omicron – now the dominant variant in the province – is impacting the state of the pandemic locally, and Henry tried to address what she described as a "narrative around right now that Omicron is mild."

While many people have experienced relatively mild symptoms, officials said several groups have emerged as being at higher risk of serious illness, even with Omicron: the unvaccinated, people over age 70, and the immunocompromised. All of them deserve protection as the Omicron wave continues, Henry said.

"We need to really pay attention," she said. "With the high rates of transmission, there are still lots of people who do get seriously ill."

B.C.'s seven-day average for deaths related to COVID-19 has been climbing for weeks, going from 1.29 per day at the start of January to 6.29 per day as of Monday. Last weekend, someone died from complications related to COVID-19 every 3.3 hours, on average, in British Columbia.

It's unclear whether the steady increase in fatalities is linked to the resurgence of outbreaks in long-term care homes and assisted living facilities. There are now dozens of active outbreaks in those settings across the province; as recently as Dec. 22, there were none.

Henry noted that even people age 70 and up who are fully vaccinated face a higher risk than the general population, as people's immune systems become less responsive as they get older, and they are more likely to have underlying conditions.

Even young and healthy people can suffer severe outcomes from COVID-19, officials added, pointing to data that shows approximately one in 10 people will experience symptoms that last for 12 weeks or longer, even with Omicron.

"That's a long time to be seriously ill," Henry said.