COVID-19: British Columbia Declares Public Health Emergency, Closes Schools, Fiscal Deficit Likely 

In the late afternoon of Tuesday, March 17, 2020, British Columbia’s Chief Public Health Officer declared a public health emergency regarding the COVID-19 global health pandemic. This provides a range of additional powers to help mitigate the spread of this virus. There have been an additional 83 new cases reported today for a total of 186 cases in the province. This was also another significant day in terms of steps being taken by the government and health officials. The most notable impact is the extension of spring break for elementary and high school students in the province and the indefinite suspension of regular classes.

Public Health Emergency

Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry and Health Minister Adrian Dix announced the province was using the Public Health Act to declare a public health emergency. This means the provincial health officer can issue verbal orders with immediate effect and also compel peace officers to enforce her orders. It also means that public health actions can be taken more swiftly when needed because it allows the Minister of Health to amend health regulations without the consent of the provincial cabinet and the Provincial Health Officer can amend changes to the public health act without consent of the legislature. As an example of these new powers, she has declared that all bars that cannot maintain social distancing must close. Restaurants will see regulations in the coming days that define social distancing, although many restaurants have already closed or moved to take-out service only. This is only the second time a public health emergency has been declared, the first was in response to the opioid crisis.

K-12 Schools Suspended Indefinitely

Education Minister Fleming has extended Spring Break (which began yesterday for most students around the province) and indefinitely suspended classroom instruction. School boards are being asked to prepare plans to allow for a continuity of learning while teaching is suspended. The Minister has assured students and parents that every student will receive a final mark and everyone on track to move to the next grade in the fall will move on. Grade 12 students set to graduate this June will still do so.

Economic Plan – Deficit Now Likely

Finance Minister James said that the government is preparing an economic plan to help British Columbians impacted by COVID-19. Calling this a marathon, not a sprint, she stressed that actions need to be taken in concert with the federal government, other provinces, experts and business leaders across B.C. She outlined three streams of activity her officials are working on; services and supports in place to protect the health and safety of British Columbians; initiatives to bring immediate relief to people and businesses in concert with the federal government, and building plan for economic recovery in collaboration with the business community. She said they continue to press the federal government to extend Employment Insurance for people who wouldn’t’ typically qualify including the self-employed, part-time workers, and contractors.

Minister James also said that a deficit budget is likely but said it was too early for specifics. She said the current situation would likely require an economic update at some point.

Spending authority

The B.C. government typically introduces a bill to give itself interim spending authority until a provincial budget is passed at the end of May each year. However, this bill has not yet been introduced. Cabinet does have the power to use a special warrant to authorize spending in exceptional circumstances and that could be used here. This provision has not been used in the past 20-years.

B.C. Legislature Spring Session

It is increasingly unlikely that all MLAs will return to Victoria when the House is scheduled to reconvene next Monday, March 23, 2020. The House leaders are discussing whether to adjourn or bring a small group of legislators together to meet basic quorum. They could then pass interim spending authority legislation and other critical bills.