Rob Shaw: BC has already told restaurants it will extend the ban on in-person dining – but inexplicably, won’t tell the public.
B.C. is clearly set to extend its ban on in-person dining at restaurants, but can’t seem to work up the courage to say so publicly until the very last minute.
Health Minister Adrian Dix rolled through another public briefing Thursday without a word about sweeping health restrictions set to expire Tuesday, April 20.
The previous day, he tap-danced through a media scrum on the issue, deflecting questions, refusing to confirm an extension was in the works, and at the same time hinting it probably would be extended, based on worsening case numbers and hospitalizations.
It served no purpose, other than to confuse the public.
Leaders in the food and beverage sector say they were already told by Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry to expect the indoor dining ban to continue for as long as mid-May, during a private meeting on April 12.
The meeting was a conciliatory gesture to a sector stung by Henry’s initial surprise order three weeks prior.
Restaurants are struggling to survive financially and had asked for a heads-up to avoid purchasing food and alcohol unnecessarily for a return to indoor dining only to have it go to waste if the extension was made at the last minute.
With the private briefing, Henry seems to have tried to meet them halfway. But it was naive to think the sector would keep the news to itself. Within hours, it had sent out a public bulletin to all members (and the media) that the ban would be extended.
Despite that, the province simply couldn’t bring itself to confirm publicly what it had already said privately. Why remains a mystery. It may have something to do with the fact it just finished announcing a $50 million aid package to compensate restaurants for the first round of closures – which will be immediately swamped and rendered inadequate by the extension of restrictions.
Whatever the reason, the result is that the government is in the unenviable – but completely preventable – position of having to officially announce the extension on Monday.
Not only is this the last-minute scenario restaurants wanted to avoid, but also happens to be the day before the provincial budget.
Governments usually try to drum up positive news coverage for their multi-billion spending plans the day prior to a budget, previewing certain details and whetting the public’s appetite for the goodies on the horizon.
Instead, all eyes will be on the widespread economic damage done to restaurants.
The bungling of the restaurant ban fits into larger concerns about how government is handling the release of COVID-19 announcements, information and data. Glacier Media vice-president Kirk LaPointe highlighted widespread problems in a recent open letter.
At the centre of it all is Dix himself, a noted micromanager, whose intense workaholic tendencies have been an asset so far during the crisis.
But the longer the pandemic drags on, and the more criticism that mounts over the province’s decisions, the more control a minister like Dix will undoubtedly want to have over everything to do with the flow and timing of public information.
He should resist that urge.
Sometimes, like in the case of the restaurant ban extension, it’s simply better to admit the obvious and move on, rather than dragging out a long and pointless misinformation battle the province is always destined to lose.
Rob Shaw has spent more than 13 years covering BC politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for The Orca. He is the co-author of the national best-selling book A Matter of Confidence, and a regular guest on CBC Radio.
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