It was the 24 hours that shook the Island. On the advice of Public Health Officer Heather Morrison, the King government announced March 18th that liquor and cannabis stores would close in 24 hours.
To say old hell broke loose is an overstatement. But the resulting surge in booze shopping shows how fragile even the best of public health intentions are.
The announcement was slightly muddled and rushed. It did not include important details, like only the 17 government operated liquor and four cannabis stores would close. Private retail outlets would still be open and breweries were still offering pick-up only service.
Many chose to ignore repeated public health warnings for social distancing to stand in long, tightly packed lines waiting for their turn to stock up. “I’m disappointed in Islanders’ response in the last three hours,” Morrison said the next day. “We have talked about social distancing, we have talked about the importance of staying at home unless it’s essential, and that appears to have been ignored in the last three hours.
“Perhaps we underestimated that alcohol is considered essential for some people,”she mused.
If it were an ordinary week, criticism might be expected. But last week was no ordinary week. In a matter of days government announced $25 million in support for Island business and employees, $500,000 for the Island’s most vulnerable, declared a provincial state of emergency, closed Island schools and licensed child care centres, and announced PEI’s first confirmed case of COVID-19.
None of these were on the docket a week before.
These are not ordinary times. Normal decision making processes, often frustratingly tedious, have been temporarily thrown out the door. Bureaucratic inertia is replaced with a how can we get it done now mentality.
The King government is showing significant leadership in navigating PEI’s response to the crisis in conjunction with the Public Health Officer. It seems like a lifetime ago that Dorian whipped across the province and cut a path of power outages that shut down the Island for four days. The premier’s response was criticized then, but the experience of working within the Emergency Measures Organization structure is now paying dividends.
King and his cabinet are not scared to make a decision, nor are they waiting for other provinces to show the lead. This assertiveness will help us down the road.
But it also means mistakes will be made, like missing the fine details of closing liquor stores. In the context of this unprecedented crisis, it’s not only OK to make mistakes, it’s vital. It means government is recognizing need and doing whatever is necessary to deliver an effective response as quickly as possible, knowing perfection is a luxury we do not have.
Many have praised the work of Dr. Morrison and her team. It is praise richly deserved. But her work is made more efficient by the active response pursued by Premier King, who has helped ease potential hurdles by including opposition parties in daily briefings for two of three cabinet level committees created to direct our provincial response. The exception being a committee charged with shutting down nonessential government services. It is a fair compromise struck with the opposition.
As a province we have much to be thankful for in the early days of COVID-19. We have a dynamic Public Health Officer and a government prepared to listen and act on health care advice, while responding to the human and economic needs of Islanders. And importantly too, our opposition parties recognize this is not the time to harp on the little details. There will be plenty of time for that down the road.
If we get the big details of COVID-19 right, our province will minimize the crushing impact felt in other areas of the world. COVID-19 cares not about political colour. This is a crisis that requires all Islanders to do their part for the greater good.
We will get through this together.
Paul MacNeill is Publisher of Island Press Limited. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org