VICTORIA — British Columbia is reducing the size of gatherings and events over the next six weeks in an effort to contain an expected rapid rise in cases due to the highly transmissible COVID-19 Omicron variant. 

Cases are spiking because of the Omicron variant in Nova Scotia, Quebec, Ontario and globally, and B.C. will face the same surge within the next week, provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said Friday.

The province reported 302 cases of the Omicron variant of concern on Friday, up from 135 on Thursday.

A statement from the Health Ministry said the overall number of COVID-19 cases in the province is 789, and there have been three more deaths. 

Starting Monday, restrictions on events and gatherings will be in effect until the end of January to reduce the spread of the Omicron variant.

“This is, of course, not where we want to be,” Henry said at a news conference. “It is the reality of where we are.”

The new public health measures range from limits on venues that hold more than 1,000 people to 50 per cent capacity to no youth or adult sports tournaments over the Christmas holiday period and cancellation of all New Year’s Eve parties, Henry said.

Indoor family gatherings, including those at rental or holiday properties, are limited to one household, plus 10 guests, and everyone must be vaccinated, she said. 

“The newest variant, the Omicron variant of concern, is adding new and more complex challenges to our pandemic,” said Henry. “It is moving quickly and so must we. Right now, we must slow the spread.”

The 50 per cent capacity at venues that hold more than 1,000 people applies to sports events, including hockey games, theatre performances and music concerts and will ensure there is additional space for people, she added.

“These are events that have been managed very well and we are not seeing a lot of transmission, but with this highly transmissible variant, we need to have more space, more ventilation and we need to ensure we are enforcing mask wearing requirements for these events,” said Henry.

The B.C. Vaccine card program must be used at all events and people will not be allowed to move between tables at restaurants, which will be open on New Year’s.

“We can still socialize with each other, but do it in a way that doesn’t increase risk,” Henry said. 

Retailers must ensure COVID-19 safety precautions are in place at their outlets for holiday and Boxing Day sales events, she said.

Henry said she expected to announce changes Tuesday to B.C.’s rapid testing policy, which has faced questions about the lack of public availability of the tests.

Health Minister Adrian Dix said the new restrictions will be challenging as the province continues to battle a “vicious virus that lives to spread and spreads to live.”

He acknowledged that people in B.C. will now face their second straight Christmas season under health orders limiting events and gatherings with families and friends.

“This is not going to be easy, not for any of us,” said Dix. “But as it’s shown, COVID-19 has its own plans. COVID’s Omicron variant is highly transmissible and each of us knows with rising case counts around the globe and here in B.C., we are once again called to act.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 17, 2021.

Dirk Meissner, The Canadian Press