B.C. premier backtracks on his own Christmas plans, illustrating the confusion over health orders

Turns out, the most powerful person in British Columbia has just as much trouble figuring out the province’s COVID-19 guidelines for Christmas as the rest of us.

“Ellie and I are planning to get together with my son and daughter-in-law,” Premier John Horgan, referring to his wife, told News 1130 reporter Liza Yuzda during the traditional round of year-end interviews with media organizations.

“My daughter, I have to confess … is anxious about that because she doesn’t want to break any rules, but I checked it with my buddy and he said it was OK. So that’s our plan, the four of us will eat something on Christmas day and that’ll be about it.”

In this case, Horgan’s “buddy” was Health Minister Adrian Dix — but a day later, the premier changed his mind. 

“I have to be accountable to myself, my family and the broader community, and the fact that I am a government representative doesn’t change that,” he said to Yuzda. 

But did Horgan’s original plan violate a public health order?

Here’s what the rules say.

Right now, your ‘bubble’ is your household 

The government has an extensive web page called “provincewide restrictions” that outlines all of its measures to try to prevent transmission of COVID-19, a deadly virus that has killed 1.7 million people around the world, including more than 700 British Columbians. 

In the section called “social gatherings,” the very first words are “no social gatherings of any size at your residence with anyone other than your household or core bubble,” the words intentionally bolded. 

It goes on to say that “for most people, their core bubble is their immediate household.”

The premier’s son and his partner are not part of Horgan’s immediate household.

People who live alone are allowed to add a partner, relative, friend or co-parent to their bubble to a maximum of two people. 

As Horgan lives with his wife, and his son and partner also live together, this does not apply to them.

But did he break a law?

However, if the premier did have his son and daughter-in-law over for Christmas dinner and then let the entire world know about it, there’s probably nothing Solicitor General Mike Farnworth or Attorney General David Eby would do about it.

That’s because most of B.C.’s public health orders focus on regulating the activities of businesses and organizations rather than private households.

The province has orders around gatherings and events, food and liquor serving premises and mask mandates in indoor public spaces. These cover all sorts of activities, including sports, gyms and recreation facilities, restaurants and bars, and many other places. 

The only exception is in the gathering and events health order. It says people can’t hold “an event at a private residence,” unless it meets certain exceptions, none of which seem to apply to the Horgan household. 

So far, that we know of, police in B.C. have only used the order to issue fines for those having larger gatherings. It’s conceivable the police could start issuing fines to families that meet for dinner, but it would also be tremendously inefficient, to put it mildly. And it remains to be seen whether the government’s interpretation of that being an “event” or “gathering” would hold up in court. 

In any event, Horgan says he is no longer inviting over his family. And the words of Health Minister Adrian Dix on Thursday continue to hold.

“When we are debating specific rules, and we’re saying, ‘Well, can we get to be on this side of the rule or not,’ at this crucial time, when we’re working to keep those long-term care homes safe, I ask people: ‘When in doubt, rule it out,'” he said. 

“We cannot litigate, argue with a COVID-19 virus that doesn’t want to litigate. It doesn’t want to argue. It just wants to transmit.”

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