A look at COVID-19 reopening plans across the country

Beginning Thursday, people will again have to wear masks at all indoor public spaces in the Central Okanagan because of rising COVID-19 case numbers.

Better a renewed mask mandate than a business shutdown.

So says a spokesman for the province's hospitality industry, who believes requiring staff and customers at Kelowna restaurants and bars to once again wear masks is unfortunate but reasonable.

"I think it's being proactive and it's necessary," Ian Tostenson of the B.C. Restaurant and Food Services Association said in an interview.

"Masks are no big deal. But it does send a message to people, 'We're still in a pandemic. Let's stay serious about this'," Tostenson said.

The government could have gone further and ordered the temporary shutdown of indoor dining in Kelowna restaurants, Tostenson noted: "The government could have gone a lot deeper on this, but I think they're being very fair."

In the past week, the greater Kelowna area has accounted for half of all new COVID-19 cases in B.C. And two-thirds of the new provincial cases reported Wednesday - 113 of 185 - were in the region served by Interior Health.

As a result, the provincial government has declared a COVID-19 outbreak for all of the Central Okanagan.

The most significant measure announced Wednesday is a re-imposition of the requirement that people wear masks at all indoor public spaces in Kelowna, West Kelowna, Lake Country, and Peachland. The order affects not just bars and restaurants, but all stores and public buildings.

In recent days, several Kelowna restaurants and bars have voluntarily closed because staff had tested positive for COVID-19.

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said many of the new cases were in young people, between the ages of 20 and 40, who were either unvaccinated or who had only one of the two necessary jabs.

Last July, the Kelowna area saw a surge in COVID-19 cases after initial pandemic lockdown-like provisions were eased. The case counts gradually dropped through the summer, and Health Minister Adrian Dix expressed hope Wednesday the same pattern would repeat this year.

"We saw, in a relatively short period of time, the Kelowna area going from a centre of COVID-19 transmission to well below the average of the province," he said. "And so the message here is, We can do this. These measures are necessary. We're going to work together to get it done.

"I believe the communities of the Central Okanagan will demonstrate once again their leadership," Dix said.

Neither Dix nor other health officials would say exactly what benchmarks would have to be reached for the mandatory indoor mask mandate to be lifted for the Kelowna area.

However, there were suggestions that an 80% vaccination rate would be an important milestone. Currently, the vaccination rate in the Central Okanagan is about 74%.

"We can be higher and we need to be higher," Dix said. "That target of moving in the region toward an 80% goal is an important one that will greatly aid our efforts."

For his part, Tostenson expressed the belief that Kelowna's new COVID-19 cases would drop, and its vaccination rates rise, in the weeks ahead.

"I think we'll get a hold of this," he said. "Let's turn these numbers around because the worst thing for us would see this cascade onto the rest of the restaurant industry in B.C."