From babies to bridge crossings, a data dive into how COVID-19 changed B.C.

It has been 15 months since our lives were rattled by COVID-19.

Many British Columbians have lost loved ones, lost jobs, lost precious time with friends and family due to the pandemic.

It has been the most seismic shift in how we live our lives that a vast majority of us have ever experienced.

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way we travel, shop and interact with each other.

Global BC looked at how the first year of the global pandemic changed our lives and behaviours.

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Were more babies born in B.C. during the pandemic? Photo by Getty Images. Photo by Ute Grabowsky/Photothek via Getty Images

A baby boom?

It is one of those COVID-19 theories: self-isolating plus a sense of uncertainty could mean a baby boom in British Columbia nine to 10 months after the pandemic’s first wave.

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But the numbers tell a different story.

Data provided by the Vital Statistics Agency shows there has been no sign the pandemic made any difference when it comes to new babies.

For example, in January 2020 there were 3,584 babies born in the province. Fast forward a year (and 10 months after the pandemic was declared) and there were 3,426 babies born. The drop-off could be for various reasons, but one possibility is the pandemic actually led to fewer babies being born.

From March 2020 to March 2021, there were 3,658 babies born in the province, rising to 3,786 new births a year later.

The data shows it’s unclear at this time if the pandemic led to more babies being born but the numbers are holding steady.

Read more: B.C.’s 2021 New Year’s baby born in Vancouver

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Rush hour on the Port Mann Bridge

One of the most dramatic impacts of the pandemic was the immediate drop-off in people travelling on our roads. Rush hour traffic — well, any traffic, for that matter — disappeared in late March.

Here are the numbers to support that change.

In March 2019 there were 155,067 crossings per day on the Port Mann Bridge, and in February 2020 there were 155,353 crossings a day.

Flip the calendar to March and the drop-off is dramatic.

In March 2020, crossings dropped to 124,827 a day. April saw a low of 96,916 crossings a day but in May traffic rebounded to 133,316 trips a day.

Despite the second wave of the pandemic forcing closures and restricting travel, crossings on the Port Mann Bridge remained high in December 2020.

In December 2019 there were 143,565 crossings recorded on the bridge compared to just a slight drop in December 2020 to 140,425 a day.

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Read more: Second wave — Dr. Bonnie Henry and Adrian Dix answer your COVID-19 questions at Global BC town hall

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Commuter traffic through the Massey Tunnel

It wasn’t just the Port Mann Bridge experiencing the drop-off in commuters.

The story was similar at the Massey Tunnel connecting Richmond and Delta.

This popular span for both recreational and commercial vehicles showed the overall impact the pandemic had on all facets of residents’ daily commute.

According to data provided by the Ministry of Transportation, traffic levels in the spring and summer of 2019 remained consistent, with around 85,000 to 89,000 vehicles going through the tunnel each day.

However, by mid-2020, the numbers tell a different story.

The lowest level of tunnel crossings was recorded in April 2020, with 45,240 vehicles crossing, just over half of the 85,520 vehicles recorded just a year earlier.

As restrictions eased into the summer of 2020, vehicle numbers went up, but were still way below a year earlier, levelling off around 68,000 to 69,000 trips per day in the summer.

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The B.C. government released a rendering of the new bridge on Highway 99 that will replace the aging George Massey Tunnel. B.C. Government

Fewer cars, fewer crashes

Fewer cars on the road during the pandemic inevitably meant fewer crashes. It also ultimately led to ICBC customers getting a rebate.

In rounded-off numbers provided by ICBC, the number of crashes reported dropped off dramatically once the pandemic hit and in no month was that observed more dramatically than April 2020.

In April 2019 there were 23,000 crashes (rounded) reported to ICBC. This plummeted to 10,000 (rounded) reported crashes in April 2020.

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The trends continued through much of the pandemic.

From May 2019 to May 2020 there was a drop from 26,000 to 14,000 crashes. Even as restrictions eased, there were significant signs things were not back to normal. In September 2019 there were 25,000 crashes and in that same month in 2020, there were 19,000.

Because of the substantial drop in crashes, the public insurer saved significant money and the province passed on those COVID-19-related savings to drivers in the form of two rebates.

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Vancouver's love of cycling

While the pandemic had major effects on the way British Columbians got around, not all modes of transportation were affected equally.

In 2020, air, road and transit trips all fell dramatically, but cycling in the city of Vancouver saw a much more muted dip.

According to City of Vancouver data collected at cycling traffic counters citywide, recorded bike crossings fell by 8.7 per cent from 11.47 million in 2019 to 10.47 million in 2020.

Global News looked at two of the busier crossings, which told different stories.

Crossings in 2020 were actually up on Burrard Bridge, as recorded by the counter at Cornwall Street. At this location, 2020 saw 1.41 million crossings, up from 1.39 million in 2019.

At Union and Hawks streets, at the eastern edge of downtown Vancouver, trips fell to about 890,000 crossings in 2020, from nearly 1.01 million the year before.

Navdeep Chinna with Hub Cycling said the discrepancy between the two crossings likely reflected the importance of the Union Street/Adanac cycling route as a route for cycle commuters into the downtown core, with numbers down as more people worked from home.

But he said he was surprised to see how low the drop in traffic was.

“We were more or less in a lockdown. Nobody would go into anywhere, so to see that small of a drop over that period and still staying consistent, it’s not too far away from the 2019 numbers.

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“It was encouraging when Dr. Bonnie Henry said go for a walk, go for a bike ride, and quite a few people did that … so I think some of those numbers might have compensated for people who weren’t riding their bikes to work.”

Chinna said the numbers were encouraging for active transportation advocates, who hope people who took up cycling during the pandemic stick with it long term.

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Ridership on transit plummets

Amid travel restrictions, stay-at-home orders and work-from-home policies, transit use in Metro Vancouver saw a massive decline in 2020.

Boardings across all modes in the TransLink network plummeted from about 36.4 million in April 2019 to just 6.5 million in April 2020.

Transit use recovered to between 16 and 17 million monthly boardings by the summer of 2020, still far below the 39 to 41 million range for the same period the year prior.

At a meeting of the regional mayors’ council on transportation, TransLink said it believed as many as 90 per cent of regular users could be back on the system by September 2021.

“Some uncertainty remains around the amount of work from home — so how many days a week requires travel into the office — and any lingering apprehension about the virus,” TransLink manager of planning and policy Theresa Reilly said.

At its lowest ridership point, TransLink said 75,000 people across the region still relied on transit every day.

The transit and transportation agency is planning to remind commuters of safety measures, such as cleaning and ventilation, that are in place in the hopes that a full return to pre-pandemic numbers is possible.

Read more: TransLink gears up for increased ridership with pandemic restrictions set to ease

Unemployment hits hard

The number one economy in the country. That was the phrase thrown around most often when it came to the financial well-being of British Columbia. Then the pandemic hit, and like so much, the rosy economic picture wasn’t so rosy anymore.

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Employment numbers were steady in 2019, hitting a peak in July of 2,675,000 people employed due to the busy tourism summer. The strong numbers continued through the fall of 2019 and into early 2020, then COVID-19 hit.

There were still 2,506,100 people employed in March 2020. But the numbers then started to drop, and quickly: 2,230,700 people working in April and 2,272,600 in May. As people started adjusting to COVID-19, so did the economy. After steady climbs through the summer and into the fall the job market almost fully bounced back. By December, 2,596,800 people were working and by March 2021, it was 2,661,200 — back to pre-pandemic levels.

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24/7 health advice

The COVID-19 pandemic created a great sense of unease, especially when so little was known about the virus and the variants. This is where, in a large part, the 811 hotline came in.

The provincial phone number providing people with health advice started to experience unprecedented call volumes in March 2020 and barely eased up for more than a year.

For example, in March 2019, 41,880 people called 811. A year later, at the start of the pandemic, there were 99,760 calls in March 2020.

The volume eased through April, May and into summer, although it was still more than double in some months compared to 2019.

Then as COVID-19 picked up, coupled with cold and flu season, so did the call volumes.

In October 2020 there were 93,430 calls, up from 35,469 in the same month in 2019. In November 2020 a record-shattering 103,335 calls were answered, compared to 36,799 a year earlier.

The province said it added more resources to manage call volumes to ensure people were given the correct information about COVID-19 testing and isolating.

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A person wearing a face mask waits to cross a street in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, Jan. 4, 2021. Photo by Liang Sen/Xinhua via Getty) (Xinhua/Liang Sen via Getty Images

Nothing slows down B.C. real estate

In a year when it seemed like just about every activity in British Columbia was curtailed, there was one area that continued to defy historical trends: B.C. real estate.

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Despite COVID-19 restrictions and a global recession, sales and prices surged in 2020 compared to the year before.

According to the BC Real Estate Association, 93,953 homes were sold in 2020, up 21.5 per cent from the 77,350 sold in 2019.

The average price for a home of any type, provincewide, climbed to $782,027, up 11.7 per cent from the 2019 average of $700,369.

While there were clear dips in both in the spring of 2020, recovery was swift.

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BCREA chief economist Brendon Ogmundson attributed the rebound partly to strong safety measures implemented by realtors and pent up demand, given that the spring is usually the strongest season for sales.

“More importantly, there was a huge policy response from the federal government to really make sure people can kind of bridge financially from the worst of the pandemic to the other side,” he said.

That response included mortgage deferrals and direct financial support, while on the monetary policy side, mortgage interest rates fell to an all-time low.

Those who didn’t see their jobs affected also helped the market surge by seeking out larger or more rural homes better suited to life under the pandemic, he added.

“One of the things that goes under the radar is that if you are in certain sectors, especially higher-wage sectors, you just haven’t really felt this recession in the same way,” he said.

“So high-wage sectors actually have seen employment grow by about 10 per cent since the pandemic started.”

Looking forward, Ogmundson forecast the province to set an all-time record for sales and a 14 per cent increase in prices in 2021, before new supply begins to temper price growth.

Read more: More Metro Vancouver homebuyers forgoing home inspections despite risks

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Purr-fect time for an adoption

COVID-19 has been a lonely time for many people, especially those living alone.

With more people working at home and then having few social activities to go to, many British Columbians looked to the BC SPCA for some comfort.

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Requests for adoption for a new furry friend soared at the shelters, especially when it came to kittens.

During the early days of the pandemic, there were only 63 kitten adoptions, down from 260 in January.

However, it appears people started to realize the pandemic wasn’t going to be over any time soon and adoptions climbed to 114 in May, 148 in June and a staggering 375 in July.

The BC SPCA told Global News the number of adopted animals did not really change during COVID-19 but the demand for the animals soared. They received multiple applications for each animal and in some cases, they received more than 100 applications for the same animal.

In August, 427 kittens found a new home, followed by 363 in September and 442 in October.

In total, 3,183 kittens were adopted during the year, along with 8,580 cats and dogs.

The BC SPCA said these numbers do not include the adoptions for horses and other farm animals, rabbits or small animals, which came to more than 2,000 during the year.

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Surge in home internet use

With the majority of British Columbians working from home at the start of the pandemic and only a select few still commuting to workplaces, homes around the province became offices, classrooms and hangout spots, requiring an internet connection all day and every day.

Telus told Global News in March and April 2020, its network experienced a 40 per cent surge in internet usage compared to the same period in 2019.

Throughout 2020, Telus said it experienced a sustained 60 per cent increase in internet usage as customers continued to stay at home.

It was also clear that customers were using technology to connect and stay in touch with family and friends more than they ever have before.

Telus said it has also noticed a new phenomenon during the “busy hours” of traffic in the evenings.

At the beginning of the pandemic, Telus said usage during the busy hours surged by 18 per cent and the surge continued throughout the year, resulting in a total increase in busy hour traffic of 37 per cent for 2020.

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Double public health emergencies

British Columbia has been in the midst of a pair of provincial health emergencies: the illicit drug overdose epidemic and COVID-19. With the pandemic closing international borders and forcing people into their homes, the number of people dying from illicit drug overdoses has hit record-breaking numbers.

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Numbers were improving in 2019, going from 116 illicit drug deaths in March to 79 in November. But as soon as the drug supply became more toxic and people were using alone, the deaths climbed.

The big jump was from 122 deaths in April 2020 to 176 in May. Through the summer, the numbers stayed high: 185 deaths in June, 183 in July, 159 in August.

There was another fall surge with 173 deaths in October, nearly 100 more than the October a year before. The numbers are going down again, but are still high. Compare March of 2020 with 112 deaths to this past March with 158 deaths.

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Dinner delivery became the norm

As British Columbians stayed home under provincial health orders, it became important to support local businesses and that included ordering from local restaurants.

Food delivery services, such as SkipTheDishes, saw a surge of customers and restaurants signing up.

In 2020, the service said it saw more than 29,000 restaurants across the country join the app.

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In B.C., specifically, the top three most-ordered items through Skip were Asian dishes, pizza and burgers.

One person in B.C. has the distinction of ordering the most meals through the app – 759 orders in 2020, to be exact.

The most expensive order of the year was placed in Surrey on April 8, 2020. Someone ordered four bottles of Veuve Clicquot Brut, two bottles of Don Julio Blanco, two bottles of 12-year-old Glenfiddich and two bottles of Los Siete Misterios Mezcal.

The total came to $844.50.

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Wine glass runneth over

While restaurants and bars have been disproportionately hard hit during the pandemic, the wine industry got a surprise boost: the need to support local at-home drinkers.

As hospitality slowed, the B.C. wine sector chugged along. In January 2020 14,828,578 litres of BC wine were consumed in the province. Fast forward to April, the first full pandemic month, and sales went up to 15,119,248 litres.

The late spring, through summer, was pretty consistent, and then came the fall boom.

B.C. wine sales shooting up in September and hitting a peak of 15,308,629 litres sold of B.C. wines in October.

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Rough year for restaurants

Takeout and delivery proved to be a lifeline for B.C. restaurants, but it was still a rough year for the industry as a whole.

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According to data from Statistics Canada and BC Stats, eating and drinking places in the province (including bars, restaurants and quick-serve establishments) brought in close to $1.1 billion per month in 2019 in sales.

Last year saw that revenue stream crash to just $430 million in April 2020, when the province issued its first ban on indoor dining.

As those restrictions were relaxed, monthly sales rebounded to close to $800 million per month in the summer and fall.

B.C. Restaurant and Foodservices Association president Ian Tostenson said the year was challenging, but would have been much worse without wage and rent supports and the province’s commitment to keeping restaurants open with safety plans.

“I used to say we were the only restaurant industry in North America that didn’t close. And now I can say that in over a year period of time, we stayed open the longest,” Tostenson said.

“But without takeout and delivery and limited dining that we had, with the plexiglass and the distancing, we would have lost probably 60 per cent of our industry.”

Even so, Tostenson estimates that one in five B.C. restaurants may not have survived the pandemic, and that the industry lost $2 billion over the course of 2020.

Looking forward, however, Tostenson said he was optimistic. The move to permanent or semi-permanent sidewalk and street-side patios, combined with British Columbians’ growing appetite for takeout, could help power a recovery once the pandemic comes to an end, he said.