Les Leyne: Essential workers have legal protection during virus emergency

Essential service workers in a broad list of categories are protected during the provincial pandemic emergency from liability for infecting others with COVID-19. A ministerial order signed by Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth on Thursday outlines extensive legal protection for all workers in essential categories. The list covers most of the economy.

That legal protection was noted in the declaration of a provincial emergency on March 18.

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But the ministerial order goes into more detail. It is one of several ministerial and cabinet orders that give effect to the new powers the government is granting itself during the crisis.

The Protection Against Liability (COVID-19) Order will apply for the duration of the emergency period.

It lasts for two-week intervals and has been extended to April 14.

It states that an essential service provider is not liable for damages resulting from an individual being infected or exposed to SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) if the provider was following guidelines.

The protection applies to most of the public service and beyond. It includes:

• All health care workers and those in the medical supply chain, including drug production, testing labs, and safety equipment makers.

• All first responders, most peace officers, volunteers, contracted workers and businesses that ensure global continuity of supply.

• Business and non-profits that help vulnerable people, like food banks, community kitchens, supportive housing, daycares and seniors’ care.

• Critical infrastructure providers (all utilities), fuel suppliers, manufacturing, food and agriculture workers and retailers of food, pet supply, liquor/cannabis and others.

• The transportation sector, sanitation, communications, and most of the service sector are also covered.

“Gross negligence” is the only qualification on the protection.

Also ordered this week by Farnworth was the activation of a “provincial compliance officer” designation.

It will allow for the conversion of liquor/cannabis and gaming inspectors to compliance officers.

They will be required to assist in enforcing public health orders about closures and issue warning to people who ignore restrictions and report infractions to public health officers.

They don’t have authority to detain or fine people suspected of defying health orders.

Another order this week streamlines some processes used by the College of Pharmacists to allow for quicker hiring of pharmacists if shortages developed.

The ministry said there are no shortages currently. The change is being made just in case. It allows for quick registration of “limited,” “temporary” and “temporary student” pharmacists.

College bylaws were amended to make the change in just 24 hours, rather than the usual lengthier period for amending bylaws.

There’s also an order that impacts the lineups at B.C. Ferries, where sailings have been cut in half fleet-wide starting today.

B.C. Ferries and all other ferry operators must ensure priority loading for vehicles carrying essential goods and supplies and for “residents of sailing destinations,” meaning people going home have priority over those leaving.

Earlier in the declared emergency period, a ministerial order suspended the requirements for local governments to hold open meetings. Municipalities and other bodies are not required to allow members of the public to attend an open meeting, in recognition of the social distancing requirements.

City halls are closed in any event, and public hearings curtailed. The order allows for broader use of electronic or online meetings.

It also allows local councils to adopt bylaws instantly, voiding the usual time line.

Farnworth has also created the authority to bar retailers from “selling more than the specified number of items to a person in a single transaction.”

As well, hotel operators must provide accommodation on the minister’s demand for essential workers and self-isolating individuals.

Elsewhere, freedom of information law sections requiring that personal data be held in Canada are suspended for provincial health bodies.

If the information relates to COVID-19, it can be disclosed outside the country.

The same applies to third-party tools or applications used by the government.

Also this week, there was a lengthy cabinet order to the B.C. Utilities Commission directing it to approve the B.C. Hydro rate relief announced Wednesday.

Any one of the moves would be significant in normal times. Seeing all the decrees in the space of a week brings home yet again how quickly everything has changed.

lleyne@timescolonist.com

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