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Opinion: We want the Ten Commandments, not the Ten Suggestions

pedestrians
Pedestrians wear masks on Government Street in Victoria.

We like rules.

Not guidelines — rules. With real consequences for those who break them.

This, therefore, is Reason 1,238 why we hate the pandemic: It’s a war being fought on the honour system. So much of the struggle against COVID‑19 relies on people voluntarily doing the right thing — even while their efforts are undermined, with impunity, by those who don’t. It’s like bailing at one end of the boat while watching a guy chop a hole in the other.

It doesn’t help that there’s often a confusing, exploitable gap between what Horgan and Henry, Trudeau and Tam tell us we should do and what the law, the public health orders, say we must. It’s the difference between the Ten Commandments and the Ten Suggestions.

Take B.C.’s new travel restrictions, the details of which are to be revealed today. What we know so far is that there will be a ban, backed up by fines, on non-essential travel between health districts, which for us translates to staying on the civilized side of the moat separating Vancouver Island from the mainland. We’re also being discouraged, but not barred, from travelling long distances within the Island. For example, Victorians are being told they shouldn’t go to Nanaimo.

Well, there’s a big difference between shouldn’t and can’t. Can’t is when the cops drag you out of the Hub City Hilton and lock you up in the Crowbar Hotel instead.

Shouldn’t is when booking into your $150-a-night passion pit results in nothing more painful than the stink-eye from the people peering down from the moral high ground. Shouldn’t dumps the onus for figuring things out (and potentially turning away business in the name of the greater good) onto the hotel operators. It also breeds hard feelings between those who think it’s OK to post selfies from Tofino and those who think anywhere beyond Costco should require a passport.

Another question: What travel will be deemed essential, and how, other than through CounterAttack-style roadblocks, will travellers be vetted? Turning ferry ticket agents into machine-gun-toting Checkpoint Charlie border guards would be a non-starter. Apparently ticket agents will simply ask passengers “Is your travel essential?” and take them at their word, which sounds like the equivalent of a cop saying “Col. Mustard, did you kill the dead guy in the library? No? OK, off you go, then.”

It would also feed the suspicion that pandemic measures aren’t hard to beat. Half-hearted bans on international travel from COVID hot spots are circumvented by anyone willing to take something other than a direct flight. The TV news shows English Bay beach partiers with their tongues in each others ears. It seems to take forever to shut down businesses defying the law.

At Thursday’s news conference, Dr. Bonnie Henry spoke of “people making exceptions for themselves,” which seemed a good way to describe the mental contortions that many of us go through to legitimize our actions.

Diners who obviously aren’t from the same household crowd the tables of restaurant patios. Your safe six has seen more cast changes than Law and Order.

We are hypocrites, cussing and fussing about out-of-province licence plates while in the next breath happily chatting about our ­children and grandchildren ­popping over from the Lower Mainland — COVID Central — for the weekend. (BTW, using “They’re in my bubble” as an excuse for hosting out-of-town guests is like saying “I’m using birth control” to justify smoking meth. Bubbles and travel restrictions are unrelated.)

Part of the reason we get away with this, of course, is that government is reluctant to impose rules it doesn’t have the capacity to enforce. But it also comes down to the message the authorities inadvertently send when they rely on common sense and guidelines.

Turns out we don’t have that much sense, and guidelines work best when applied to high school dress codes, not the end of the world.

People like clarity. When they ask “Can I go to Mount Washington?” they want one of two answers: yes or no. They want rules they can understand, and that will be enforced when broken (why stop at fines when horsewhipping is on the table) so that no one gets away with chopping holes in the boat while the others are bailing.

jknox@timescolonist.com