More than half of the Whistler businesses WorkSafeBC visited as part of an inspection blitz Jan. 30 and 31 were cited for violations of COVID-19 regulations.
Inspectors wrote orders for 35 of the 62 workplaces they visited, said Al Johnson, head of prevention services.
“An order is written when there’s a violation to the regulation,” he said. “Generally speaking, what an order would mean is part of their COVID-safety plan needed improvement.”
Some common infractions included employers not conducting proper health checks, not having proper equipment available or used correctly, and infractions to occupancy limits, particularly in places like lunchrooms or washrooms for employees.
“We were a little surprised out of 62 inspections, a handful didn’t have a COVID safety plan,” Johnson said. “That is basic. After a year of us and everyone else saying, ‘You need a COVID safety plan,’ we were surprised a few didn’t have a plan. That’s not to say they weren’t doing something; they didn’t have a written plan.”
In addition to the seven prevention officers who visited Whistler, nine consultants also called 38 local businesses for phone consultations.
At the same time, Vancouver Coastal Health sent public health officers to inspect primarily bars and restaurants.
“I would say businesses were fairly receptive of us doing our Whistler inspection initiative,” Johnson said. “No one likes to see a WorkSafe inspector, so to speak, on any worksite on any issue, but we really are there to try to ensure they’re doing what they need to do and know what they need to do.”
The workplace inspections were centred in high-density areas and focused on retail, grocery and liquor stores, hotels, and ski operations said the Whistler Chamber of Commerce in its Feb.8 newsletter.
“If business owners need any help in developing and implementing their COVID-19 Safety Plan, go2HR’s COVID-19 Safety Plan Review Initiative is an excellent resource, and is complimentary and confidential,” said the Chamber.
“The Whistler Chamber, WorkSafeBC and go2HR will continue to collaborate to provide Whistler businesses with all the support and resources they need in fulfilling these obligations.”
According to Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, the blitz worked.
On Wednesday, Feb. 10, Vancouver Coastal Health confirmed numbers are down with 43 new cases, (as of Feb. 8) and 24 older cases that had earlier symptom onset, for a total of 614 cases since Jan. 1.
“There is still transmission happening and I know there was quite an impact from what WorkSafe and Environmental Health Officers did with a number of the restaurants, bars, and retail outlets last weekend,” Henry said. “From what we hear, it was a reasonable weekend. There are still long lines waiting for … the lifts to the ski hill. That’s something that is challenging for people and I think there’s more that still needs to be done to engage with the community so that, for the next number of weeks of the season, there’s a reasonable approach.”
That comment was in stark contrast with the provincial press conference on Friday, Feb. 5 during which Health Minister Adrian Dix revealed there had been 547 cases in Whistler from Jan. 1 to Feb. 2.
Only two cases required short stays in the hospital and none resulted in deaths.
“Almost all the recent cases that are associated with transmission [occurred] within households and social settings, according to our contact tracing,” he added. “Dr. Henry and I spent time and were working with the mayor of Whistler, Jack Crompton, who’s played an extraordinary leadership role … I want to acknowledge his work.”
WORKING GROUP UNDERWAY
Dix also alluded to a “full action plan” that the Ministry of Tourism is expected to release soon to reduce transmission at ski hills across the province.
“We want to take those actions and focus in on the source of transmission and limit transmission and not have to take broader action with respect to the entire industry,” he said.
That said, Dix reiterated that transmission appears to be coming from social settings.
“It’s not skiing on the mountain that’s been the principal source of transmission,” he said. “We’ll continue increasing [inspections]—and I think you’ll see an increase in communications, more details of the plan, both from the industry, involving health authorities, but also the Ministry of Tourism—to target transmission in the coming weeks. I think it’s very important we do that because no one wants to take broader action that would curtail the season.”
“But we need to take action now … That’s way, way, way too many cases.”
The Ministry of Tourism is working alongside health officials and the ski industry to come up with a plan to address not only safety, but also problems like non-locals with ski passes travelling to resorts outside of what’s considered their local mountain.
Said Crompton: “All of the agencies we’ve had the privilege of working with over the last little while I have found to be extremely professional, focused and collaborative.”
SELF-ISOLATION HOUSING AVAILABLE
The Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) has been working in collaboration with BC Housing, Vancouver Coastal Health, and Whistler Community Services Society (WCSS) to address the challenges many locals face with self-isolating in high-density shared houses.
Back in November, when Whistler’s COVID-19 cases surged, WCSS began to collect information and data from people using its services to find out what kind of help they needed during this challenging time.
That led to several initiatives—from hygiene kits to food bank deliveries, an electronic assistance program (in which people without cellphones to access their COVID-19 test results are given phones) and self-isolation housing.
“I think high-density housing has always been something WCSS and our frontline staff have been aware of,” said Jackie Dickinson, executive director of WCSS, “The [issues] that have come out of the pandemic are not new; they’ve come to the forefront and ask us to take a look at the challenges any community faces.”
Details on the location of the emergency self-isolation housing are not being shared to protect the privacy of those using it, but Dickinson confirms it is located in Whistler.
“There are a variety of different factors that determine a reference for this program,” she added. “Sometimes it does depend on a lot of factors people disclose—whether they can safely isolate is a big one. Sharing accommodation rooms or bathrooms with others is one to consider.”
The housing also serves anyone at risk for homelessness due to their COVID-19 status or anyone who is already homeless and unable to care for their health properly.
After testing positive or being instructed by officials to self-isolate, individuals in need can connect with WCSS to learn more about the available housing.
“Our site is in the community,” Dickinson said. “Through this project we’re learning all the time what our next steps are—how to keep working with these partners, how to bring the need for emergency housing to the forefront.”