Small communities in the South Okanagan are doing what they can to reduce the risk of a COVID-19 outbreak among Quebec orchard workers who are arriving for the region’s fruit-growing season.
The Town of Oliver says Emergency Management BC has provided funding to the town’s emergency operations centre to implement temporary measures in response to COVID-19.
Porta potties equipped with hand-washing stations will be installed at the town-owned lot on Main Street, the Visitor Information Centre and the empty lot on Station Street, adjacent to the food bank, for domestic farm workers and vulnerable citizens.
Bilingual signage will be installed in parks, ball fields, beaches plus hiking and biking trails that speak to physical distancing and where to call if you are experiencing COVID-19 symptoms.
Park ambassadors will also be hired for the month of May, working 7 days per week, to patrols parks, disinfect surfaces, and provide education on social distancing.
Concerns about a potential community outbreak have been growing as up to 1,500 out-of-province domestic workers, many of whom hail from Quebec, are expected to flood into the South Okanagan in the coming weeks in search of short-term work on farms, fields and orchards.
Quebec is the worst hit province in the country, with more than 26,000 lab-confirmed cases of COVID-19, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada. Just over 2,000 cases have been reported in B.C.
The Ministry of Agriculture says out-of-province domestic farm workers are not required to self-isolate for 14 days upon arrival in B.C., unlike temporary foreign workers who must undergo a mandatory 14-day quarantine upon entry to B.C., which is being overseen and paid for by the provincial government.
No inter-provincial travel restrictions are currently in place.
Farmers are also not required to provide housing to Quebec fruit pickers, as they are for foreign workers. The transient nature of the farm work often sees domestic farm labourers camp in orchards or along river banks, sometimes without access to washroom and shower facilities.
Martin Johnansen, Oliver’s mayor, is supportive of the Regional District of Okanagan-Similkameen (RDOS) taking over operations of the sanctioned fruit-growers camp north of the town, called Loose Bay.
The Loose Bay Campground Society, concerned about liability and a lack of resources to implement COVID-19 protocols, dissolved earlier this week. The RDOS will take control and assume liability of the camp, which is slated to open on Friday.
“I think the requirements around the COVID-19 pandemic were very onerous for a society to be taking on, in particular, having to hire additional staff to manage the situation, and the RDOS is in a much better position to take that on,” Johansen said.
Mark Woods, community services manager for the RDOS, said the regional district is in the process of hiring a COVID-19 co-ordinator for the camp and developing procedures if a camper were to present COVID-19 symptoms.
“Whether or not they are housed on site and supported at the Loose Bay site or if we look at using hotel rooms,” Woods said. “With the heightened level of risk associated with COVID, I think it’s appropriate we are there to support them.”
There is also discussion about having a mobile COVID-19 testing site available for campers.
Camp operators anticipate up to 40 fruit pickers could arrive at the campground in the coming weeks and the maximum capacity is over 300 people.