John Horgan and Bonnie Henry have taken the Saran Wrap off the province and encouraged us at last to dig in. Not that there is a less risky, full-meal deal to feast upon much farther away this summer, anyway.
But, back from a week in the Okanagan, I’d say it’s very much time for a needed giddy-up into higher gear. If a place like this isn’t roaring, we British Columbians have work to do.
The Interior is the place COVID-19 has so far forgotten to visit. Locals are in evidence on the hot early summer days, but the frolicking beaches are a bit misleading. It conceals the hurting local merchants, the emaciated by-appointment-only winery traffic and the overall chasm in the necessary tourism market.
The Okanagan, in particular, is one of the province’s most resilient regions. Near-perennial forest fires would have suffocated many economies, but not this one. Still, even with no threat this moment of wildfires this summer, the economies of the communities adjacent to Okanagan Lake are clearly clobbered by the coronavirus.
For the time being, at least, residents are enjoying better access to what the tourists come to savour. Problems are: there aren’t enough of them, many of them and their employers are struggling, and the disproportionate Alberta licence plates likely means fewer fellow British Columbians are yet boldly taking to the roads. That might have changed as we hit Canada Day, but vendors I talked to cited plenty of capacity for July and August.
A Vancouverite would find the region otherworldly – as in, 2019 in 2020, same vibe, just a little less populous and thus dialled back. Restaurants have heeded the guidelines to limit capacity and exercise caution in serving food and drink, but unlike what you’d see in much of Greater Vancouver, you would be hard-pressed to see a half-dozen face masks in a day of Okanagan leisure. Apart from servers, almost no one wears them publicly, even in supermarkets.
Plexiglas is everywhere at counters, seemingly a condition of continuing business or reopening after dormant weeks, and patrons don’t mind taking a step back to form a longer line. But the indoor nervousness of Vancouver is nowhere to be found as people walk past each other in shops. Restaurant tables are social-distanced, but restaurant patrons at those tables aren’t. Hugs are happening. The golf courses feel quite close to business as usual. The beaches are whatever.
If Vancouver might be complacent about a second wave, considering the first-wave statistics that make British Columbia envied, the Okanagan is indifferent most everywhere. It is frustratingly caught up in someone else’s syndrome.
No surprise, mind you, considering there is scant evidence of a pandemic. The Okanagan has one of the brightest public health pictures. There have been only about 200 cases and two deaths in the entire Interior, hardly the stuff to knock the stuffing out of homegrown enjoyment – but enough to knock it out of the homegrown economy.
Might that change in the weeks ahead as British Columbians head to the picturesque, friendly desert? Perhaps. Might the virus arrive with the tourist influx, too? Perhaps.
But the larger question locally for the time being – and one all mildly affected regions must now be wondering – is why such a fuss in the first place?
We underplayed COVID-19 initially, but did we overplay it in some parts of the province subsequently? Was there a one-size-fits-all overreaction to the coronavirus that, as we can now see, collapsed local economies in an outsized way? Will we pay a more profound price than we needed to? Were the delayed surgeries, the widespread shutdowns and the damage to the psyches of isolation and the separation from loved ones and colleagues more and longer than was necessary?
When you talk to a vendor or a server or an owner in the Okanagan, they’re too polite to say the measures are overkill. They recognize they’ve been fortunate in ducking the first wave. They are sanguine that a second wave could arrive, particularly as the cars and trucks pull in for a good time.
But it’s clear they see the pandemic as someone else’s and not their own, and as we dig out of the economic hole and not just dig into our enjoyment of the province on summer vacations, I doubt they are alone. •
Kirk LaPointe is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Business in Vancouver and the vice-president, editorial, of Glacier Media.