Some watch B.C.’s COVID-19 briefings ‘religiously.’ Others have tuned out


Twice a week, shortly before 3 p.m., Paul Moxness dons his workout gear and slides onto his stationary bike in his bedroom in Kelowna, B.C. 

The 60-year-old powers on his 50-inch TV and, as he starts pedalling, watches Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry announce B.C.’s latest COVID-19 case numbers. 

“We watch the briefings pretty religiously,” said Moxness, a security consultant, whose wife joins him for the viewings.

“I like to get things from the horse’s mouth and as soon as possible.”

Moxness is among those British Columbians who have turned the province’s COVID-19 briefings into a cornerstone of their pandemic experience.

The hour-long briefings, led by Henry and B.C.’s Health Minister Adrian Dix, have emerged as the province’s most prominent communication tool, aired on radio stations, streamed online and beamed on tens of thousands of television screens. 

What health officials say carries profound consequences: It’s when people learn whether they can gather with friends or family, business can stay open or must shutter, and whether the province’s curve is trending in the right direction. 

The briefings have also reflected frustrations around B.C.’s pandemic response, including unclear guidelines around restrictions, lack of data, and public health messaging that runs counter to what federal counterparts say.

Some people, in turn, have built the briefings into their days and developed viewing rituals, while others have tuned out. 

On live streams, viewers make note of the province’s jaunty jazz music before the briefings start. Some give shoutouts to the American Sign Language interpreters, who have earned their own fan clubs. Others fretfully guess case numbers.

B.C.’s COVID-19 briefings were held daily at the start of the pandemic and have gone down to twice a week. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Heather Hill’s prep comes before that. On briefing days, she sets her phone timer for 2:55 p.m.

Once it rings, the Port Moody lawyer tunes into the first live stream she can find, and starts plugging in case numbers into a spreadsheet. She calculates five- and seven-day averages, and tracks hospitalizations and deaths. 

“I’m a data-driven person, so I like to see the trends,” she said.

Jesse Johnstone, a 43-year-old business owner in Langley, B.C., almost always watches the briefings live to learn of any changes that could impact her business.

As she watches, she texts real-time updates to a group chat with friends, dissecting new developments such as stalled vaccine deliveries.

Johnstone said she has noticed confusion and frustration from people who don’t tune into the announcements. 

“They don’t really have that background of why certain decisions were made,” she said. “If you really listen to Henry, she provides a lot of information and she is quite consistent.”

Henry is ‘chief communicator’: researcher

B.C.’s briefings have stood out from other jurisdictions, said Heidi Tworek, a history and public policy professor at the University of British Columbia.

She recently co-authored a study on how nine different countries, along with B.C. and Ontario, have communicated during the pandemic. 

Tworek said B.C. has cemented Henry as its “chief communicator,” whereas other provinces have heavily featured their premiers and politicians.

This plays out in the briefing esthetics, she said. Ontario’s briefings feature around five people in a “slightly militaristic trangle formation,” whereas B.C.’s briefings showcase Henry with Dix at her side. 

“It has really helped to avoid quite a lot of confusion in B.C.,” Tworek said.

Henry has become the public face of B.C.’s pandemic response with Dix by her side, while Premier John Horgan has been largely absent from her briefings. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

While B.C.’s approach was widely praised at the onset of the pandemic — including Henry’s mantra to “Be kind. Be calm. Be safe.” — some viewers have grown increasingly wary of her approach. 

Colin Lai, 30, said he stopped watching the briefings at the start of the new year after watching Henry sidestep issues such as mask mandates and rapid testing, which appeared at odds with other jurisdictions that successfully battled the virus. 

“We all can read science journals online,” he said. “I just don’t understand sometimes how she can be so sure about things that kind of deviate from the mainstream science.”

For that reason, Lai said he wants more time dedicated in the briefings to reporter questions and less focus on case numbers, which he argues can be shared online. 

Then there is another hurdle for the province: the viewer that doesn’t tune into the briefings at all.

Gurbir Grewal, a 28-year-old film and television producer in Vancouver, watched parts of the briefings early in the pandemic but eventually stopped, a decision he chalks up to information fatigue. 

Instead, Grewal prefers to digest bits of news from journalists on Twitter, and catch up periodically on bigger developments, such as updates on restrictions.

“If I can’t control anything, I’m going to surrender what I can for my own mental health, and just try and stay informed at a pace that feels OK to me,” he said.

Tworek, the UBC professor, said regardless of people’s stances, the briefings have become an important symbol of the pandemic in B.C. 

“It is an anchor for people right now knowing that this is a time when things get released,” she said.

“When we no longer do this, that will symbolize that we have moved beyond the crisis stage of the pandemic.” 

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