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What Does It Mean To Declare A State Of Emergency In Response To Coronavirus?

Cities and provinces are taking the step in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Vancouver city council voted unanimously Thursday to declare an official state of emergency in response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

The declaration follows similar actions from cities such as Calgary and provinces such as British Columbia and Saskatchewan.

It’s a response to the growing global pandemic of the novel coronavirus, which causes a respiratory disease called COVID-19. As of March 19, there are over 240,000 confirmed cases worldwide and nearly 10,000 deaths from the disease.

In Canada, over 800 people have tested positive with 12 confirmed deaths.

The declaration of a state of emergency is a way to grant various levels of government extraordinary temporary powers to fight an emergency such as a natural disaster, war or disease outbreak.

But what’s the difference between all of those declarations? And what powers do they actually give to the government?

Municipal state of emergency

This gives a city’s officials, city council and mayor extraordinary powers to combat a crisis.

“These are extraordinary times, and we all need to take fast and extraordinary action,” Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart said Thursday, in reference to the COVID-19 pandemic.

A municipal state of emergency, like the one passed in Vancouver, allows the city to close businesses or seize personal property and land. It gives first responders and other city officials the ability to use facilities in the city when needed, including community centres, hotels and meeting places, temporarily. Hypothetically, they could convert hotels into housing or care space for vulnerable populations.

They could also close businesses not adhering to occupation limits or if it’s in a specific community facing an outbreak. The declaration allows emergency responders to procure on a first priority basis any clothing, equipment, medical supplies or other essential supplies required to cope with the emergency.

Stewart also said the city could use the declaration to act against hoarding of supplies.

He said the city will work together with the province, which has declared a provincial state of emergency, to determine which level of government is responsible for what.

These are the provinces/territories that have declared a state of emergency (current as of March 25, 2020):

Provincial state of emergency or public health emergency

A provincial state of emergency is similar to one at the municipal level in that it allows provincial officials to do things they previously could not.

As of March 20, British Columbia, Ontario, New Brunswick, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and all three territories have declared states of emergency, while other provinces such as Alberta and Quebec have declared public health emergencies.

What’s the difference? Well, that depends on the province.

B.C. public health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry provides an update on the coronavirus on March 18, 2020.
B.C. public health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry provides an update on the coronavirus on March 18, 2020.

Some provinces have specific stipulations for health emergencies written into their respective acts, while others don’t. That’s likely why the responses from Alberta and B.C, have been different from each other.

B.C. actually declared a public health emergency a day before declaring a state emergency. In the case of B.C., the public health emergency specifically allows the provincial health officer to issue orders immediately that must come into effect, such as B.C.’s closing of all bars on St. Patrick’s Day. It also allows the health minister to amend the Public Health Act without the consent of the legislature.

A state of emergency in B.C. extends those powers to other government officials and is more structured around public safety.

Under B.C.’s Emergency Program Act, the province can acquire land or personal property, control travel in and out of the province, evacuate people, build structures and procure supplies to help combat the emergency.

The specifics vary from province to province.

National state of emergency

This is the big one, and it hasn’t happened yet.

The federal government can use the Emergencies Act to impose a state of emergency, which expires after 90 days unless extended. The act gives powers to the prime minister to respond to four different types of emergency scenarios: public welfare, public order, international emergencies and war emergencies.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic would likely be classified as a public welfare emergency.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gives an update on the government's response to the coronavirus pandemic on March 13, 2020.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gives an update on the government's response to the coronavirus pandemic on March 13, 2020.

This week, Trudeau said the government is considering using the act to declare a state of emergency. He said he has asked House Leader Pablo Rodriguez to find a way to recall the House of Commons to bring in “emergency measures.” Only 20 MPs need to be in the chamber to meet quorum if that’s the case, and it hypothetically could be pushed through in a single day.

The Emergencies Act was enacted in 1988 to replace the War Measures Act as legislation that gives cabinet and the prime minister the power to enact executive orders during times of crisis.

It has never been invoked. The War Measures Act was invoked three times at the federal level in Canada’s history: during the first and second World Wars, as well as during the October Crisis of 1970.

Similar to emergency declarations at the municipal and provincial levels, a federal state of emergency would allow the government to seize property, regulate public gatherings and potentially even prohibit the travel to or from certain areas of the country. The government could also give emergency payments to people impacted, and direct workers to render essential services they’re qualified to provide. It would impose fines or jail time for people who go against the orders of the act.

Invoking the Emergencies Act would allow the government to fast-track these decisions rather than go through parliament for each one.

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