Nuxalk Hereditary Chiefs gathered at the checkpoint last Saturday, March 28 to show their support (Caitlin Thompson photo)

Bella Coola Valley community working to address COVID-19 threat

Road closures not supported by province

COVID-19 has yet to hit the Bella Coola Valley but residents are doing all they can to make sure it stays that way. An information checkpoint assembled and run by the Nuxalk Emergency Operations Centre (EOC) remains active while the province rescinded local states of emergency across the province on March 26.

The Nuxalk’s EOC is co-ordinating the information checkpoint which is open 24 hours a day. Members of the Nuxalk Fire Department and the Guardian Watchmen are monitoring vehicles and handing out information regarding community protocols in the wake of COVID-19.

The message from the Chief Public Health Officer of Canada is that travel should be limited to absolutely essential traffic only. On March 28 Prime Minister Trudeau announced further measures to ban domestic travel by rail and air.

Hereditary Chiefs assembled at the checkpoint on Saturday, March 28 and while many expressed their desire to do more, they acknowledged the hard work of those on the front lines and pledged their support to speak to their community about the dangers of not following self-isolation and social distancing protocols.

“This pandemic is real,” said Hereditary Chief Noel Pootlass. “It’s time for us to stand together for the Nation and for the Valley.”

Many residents want to see the highway closed completely to non-essential travel, but enforcing it is another matter. It’s a wish echoed by other levels of government such as the Central Coast Regional District, the hospital, the Nuxalk Administration, and the Hereditary Chiefs.

“At this time we as the Nuxalk EOC are not able to instate a complete ban on non-essential travel for the Bella Coola Valley,” said Emergency Management Co-ordinator Jessica Miller. “Our focus remains keeping track of who’s entering the valley and ensuring they have all the right information in regards to this pandemic. At the information checkpoint we are able to let everyone know about services that are significantly reducing hours of operation including gas, grocery, accommodation, transportation and hospital. We provide information released by Vancouver Coastal Health, Nuxalk Nation, and information on how to do social distancing and self-isolation. Anyone who needs help while self-isolating can ask us and we have volunteers who will help with picking up groceries.

“Unfortunately, we see people who are not social distancing and people who are not self-isolating who should be including travellers from overseas. This is deeply felt by the whole community who notice newcomers right away and we are receiving many complaints. Our approach is to work harder on getting the message out in a consistent and caring way. We urge everyone to heed the advice of our health care professionals.”

Miller explained that the Nuxalk EOC’s powers do not extend to allow for a complete ban on travel to the valley because Nuxalk Nation Chief and Council jurisdiction is on-reserve. Nuxalk Nation’s State of Local Emergency called on all responsible organizations to collaborate on a travel restriction and while CCRD stepped up, their State of Local Emergency was rescinded by the province.

Stataltmc (hereditary leaders) understand the current position of the EOC but may take things further. Citizens who want to see the province take more action should direct their concerns to North Coast MLA Jennifer Rice.

Numbers collected at the checkpoint show that people are still visiting the valley despite pleas to stay away. Ernie Tallio has been managing the checkpoint and confirmed that there are people entering for non-essential purposes, such as sport fishing.

Read More: ‘We will get through this’: B.C. sees new COVID-19 death, but 57% have recovered

Bella Coola is not the only community on the central coast that has issued a request for travelers to stay away. The Central Coast Regional District’s Area A Director Dan Bertrand and resident of Bella Bella issued a public statement on March 28 saying his community is also worried about people coming there to seek refuge. Bertrand says the regional district had asked the province to restrict non-essential travel to the central coast.

“These folks have good intentions and they’re seeking safety and shelter, but the difficulty that we have is that our hospitals are not equipped to deal with an influx of visitors, potentially bringing COVID-19 with them,” said Bertrand.

Bertrand says for example, the hospital in Bella Bella only has one ventilator. Bella Coola is in a very similar situation, with limited resources to deal with people who fall very ill.

A public letter from the doctors of the community pleading with everyone to do their part was issued on March 26, stating “all our lives depend on your actions now.”

“Based on the advice of our Provincial Health Officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, the provincial government is strongly urging everyone throughout B.C. to avoid non-essential travel of any kind,” said North Coast MLA Jennifer Rice. “Dr. Henry has been clear that everyone needs to stay home as much as possible, and keep physical distance from others. This is not the time for anyone to be undertaking travel anywhere, by any means of transportation, that is not essential.”

However, Rice said there are currently no plans to close the road, stating “our internal transportation network is critical for supply chains of food, goods, and medicine that keep people in communities in all corners of B.C. safe.”

Wilma Mack, Administrator for the Nuxalk Nation, also confirmed there are signs going up at the top of the hill and the wharf stating that people are not welcome to seek refuge from the pandemic in Bella Coola as the local infrastructure cannot support it.

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Roger Harris and Keith Windsor, working at the Information Checkpoint, with hereditary chief Peter Siwallace on Highway 20 at the bottom of the Hill (Caitlin Thompson photo)

Keith Windsor, Roger Harris and Tom Wilson demonstrate social distancing on the job (Caitlin Thompson)

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