One in a series of four stories from British Columbian communities reflecting on how they dealt locally with the pandemic in 2020.
2020: what a year it was.
In January, while Canada reports its first presumptive case of the “novel coronavirus” (a Toronto man who had returned from Wuhan, China), the virus has not yet made our headlines. What makes the news: a vigil for the seven local victims of downed Flight 752 in Tehran, a late-night car crash that takes the life of a popular North Van teen, dipping property assessments, and angry letters about dog poo in parks.
In early February, with just four confirmed cases in B.C. (and all reportedly recovering at home in isolation), local health authorities reassure us the risk of catching the virus is low, and that the public’s reactions like buying up surgical masks and cancelling lunar new year celebrations is unnecessary. Our two public school districts field calls from parents about whether students should be kept home after trips to China. In classrooms, fears take on a darker tone, in the form of anti-Chinese racism. “Xenophobia is a common reaction. Human beings are tribalistic in nature,” and fears of illness tap into primitive defensive reactions, says a UBC psychology prof quoted in a story with the headline Coronavirus: Concern and Misconception.
In March, as cases mount, the North Shore News’ 24th Readers Choice awards reception proceeds cautiously at the Shipyards’ event venue, the Wallace. Following the advice of signs on the door, attendees shed handshakes for elbow-bumps, smiles and foot taps to avoid COVID-19.
On March 8, Canada records its first COVID death, an elderly resident of Lynn Valley Care Centre, and coronavirus concerns suddenly become very real and very close to home.
In response to alarming levels of spread and severity, the World Health Organization declares the pandemic on March 11. Mass gatherings are banned, neighbourhood playgrounds are encircled in caution tape, rec centres are shuttered, and backcountry access is curtailed with the closure of trailhead parking lots. Grocery stores are stripped of toilet paper and essentials while shelves of staples like canned soups and tuna are slapped with “limit two” rationing signs.
Amid the safety supplies shortage and with many bars and tasting rooms shuttered in accordance with a new social distancing requirement set out by the province’s medical health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, craft distilleries like North Van’s Sons of Vancouver pump out hand sanitizer, giving away pocket-size bottles for free.
Offices close and those employees who can work remotely very quickly learn the tools of WFH (work from home): a good internet connection, Zoom and Teams.
A shortage of personal protective equipment, or PPE, for health-care workers prompts the provincial government to set up a supplier hub. A West Van Secondary teacher converts his school’s bank of 3D printers into a small factory to spit out badly needed supplies like ear-saver mask straps for doctors and nurses.
Schools remain closed following spring break. Teachers, students and parents struggle to navigate a hastily launched remote learning model. Isolated from their peers, teenagers use screen time to connect with their friends on Netflix Party and Fortnite. The seven o’clock cheer rings throughout the community as neighbours bang pots and pans and holler in support of front-line workers. Outside of Lions Gate Hospital, a pink-and-tartan-clad bagpiper aptly named the Pink Pied Piper joins the nightly cheer.
In April, Dr. Bonnie Henry urges weary shut-ins to “Please, go outside,” noting reassuringly “the risk would be infinitesimally small if somebody walks by you, but it’s important to keep your distance.” West Van’s municipal workers use pool noodles to properly demonstrate social distancing along the popular SeaWalk. Over the Easter weekend, a North Van couple in long-term care, married for 74 years, die of COVID within 37 hours of each other.
In May, the barriers go up. As businesses adapt to a restart plan, Plexiglas is installed between restaurant tables and hair salon chairs, at retail cash desks, at fast food drive-in windows and at grocery store checkouts. Entrepreneurial businesses retool to meet the need, like Boma Manufacturing, which pivots from churning out souvenirs for the tourist trade to cutting and installing Plexi barriers for local shops and service providers.
In June, the Class of 2020 experiences a grad like no other, with virtual cap-and-gown ceremonies, car parades and, in the case of Upper Lynn Elementary’s Grade 7 class, a drive-in ceremony on the school field, with big-screen projection and TV news anchor Chris Gailus as emcee. The City of North Vancouver OKs booze in parks, expands patios into parking spots, closes some streets to non-local traffic and gives others, like Grand Boulevard West, over to pedestrians and cyclists – all to help city businesses bounce back and boost breathing space.
In July, amid growing concerns over crowding and trail damage from overuse, the province locks in an unpopular mandatory day-pass system to limit visitors to popular Cypress and Seymour parks, which reopened to visitors in May. Through it all, Deep Cove’s Quarry Rock Trail remains closed indefinitely due to self-seekers’ refusal to heed the warning, “Enjoy our parks but stay apart.”
Throughout the summer, pandemic fatigue sets in.
Outdoor rec programs restart in July and in early September, public pools and indoor fitness programming starts to come back online. Students return to class, with a hybrid learning model that incorporates remote learning with in-class instruction of students grouped in “cohorts” to limit risk of transmission and for ease of contact tracing. Teachers call for mandatory masks in classrooms. In an effort to thwart a second wave, we’re urged to limit our social bubble and “stick to six.”
In October, North Shore families get creative and celebrate a safe and fun Halloween with candy chutes, grab-bag tables and treat tongs.
In November, case counts climb, particularly in the Fraser Health Region. With the province awash in a second wave, and within days of penning an op-ed on why masks are not universally mandated in B.C., Dr. Bonnie Henry makes masks mandatory in public indoor and retail spaces.
In early December, Capilano Care Centre becomes the site of the North Shore’s deadliest COVID outbreak with at least 24 deaths, more infections and deaths than at Lynn Valley Care Centre during the pandemic’s first wave. Social restrictions imposed earlier in the month are extended through the holiday season. But just before the holidays, is the arrival of a vaccine, with North Shore health-care workers among the first to roll up their sleeves and be vaccinated against COVID-19, bringing relief and hope at the end of a very long year.