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Tom Mah, president of Continental Seafood Restaurant in Richmond, British Columbia, blames a provincial government blunder in the way pandemic rules were translated into Chinese for a plunge in his trade. Photo: Handout

Chinese speakers got harsher coronavirus dining rules than English speakers, in British Columbia government blunder

  • The Chinese rules were only changed by BC’s Ministry of Health to match less-strict English rules after the disparity was pointed out by the SCMP
  • One Chinese restaurateur blamed the ministry’s translation mistake for having ‘scared away’ his customers

British Columbia’s government gave Chinese speakers stricter Covid-19 rules than all other residents, in directives that were only changed this week when the discrepancy was pointed out by the South China Morning Post.

The rules in both traditional and simplified Chinese on the BC Ministry of Health’s website told restaurant customers that they “may only dine or eat with persons from your same household or same core bubble”, while restaurateurs were told that “any reservation for a private party that includes more than one household or their core bubble must be cancelled”.

But no such directives appear in English or any other language. The corresponding section only says “remember, a maximum of six people at a table and no moving between tables”; the same rules also appear in the Chinese versions.

Spokesman Calvin Cen said on Wednesday the ministry “apologises for the confusion”, and the Chinese advice had now been changed to match the English advice. While it was recommended that diners stick to one household per group, this was never an official health order, he said.

Chinese and English versions of the British Columbia Ministry of Health's website show different advice regarding restaurants. The Chinese version says “you may only dine or eat with persons from your same household”, and “any reservation for a private party that includes more than one household or their core bubble must be cancelled”. The English version shows no such advice. Photo: BC Ministry of Health

Delays in translations meant that sometimes there was a lag in getting the various rules to line up, Cen said. Archived versions show that on November 19, the English advice briefly matched the stricter Chinese rules, but by the next night, the English rules had been changed to remove the one-household-per-table directives.

The wide disparity between the rules over the past two weeks sparked confusion and anger on Chinese-language social media, as well as among restaurateurs, amid the most serious phase of the Covid-19 pandemic in the westernmost Canadian province.

Once hailed for its low case numbers, BC saw infections skyrocket in autumn, with 656 new Covid-19 cases and 16 deaths recorded on Tuesday.

The Chinese interpretation of the Covid-19 by-laws from the English version, stressing that the people at the dining table have to be of the same household ... have scared away potential customers
Tom Mah, president of Continental Seafood Restaurant

Tom Mah, president of Continental Seafood Restaurant in the Vancouver satellite city of Richmond, said on Tuesday he had been ignoring the stricter Chinese-language rules and following the more-lenient English ones. But the impact of the Chinese rules had been severe, deterring many customers, he said.

“The difference in the restrictions advice for the translation to Chinese has created unnecessary financial stress on my restaurant’s bottom line,” Mah said, reflecting considerable confusion in the restaurant industry about the rules.

The confusion over the language disparity also extended to the government.

On Sunday, when the Post pointed out that the rules were stricter in Chinese than English, a spokeswoman for the Ministry of Health said the Chinese advice was correct, and the English version would have to be updated. She thanked the Post for drawing attention to the discrepancy.


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But the ministry did not immediately respond when it was pointed out that the English advice matched that of all other versions of the rules on its website, in French, Korean, Tagalog, Punjabi, Spanish, Farsi, and Arabic.

And it is now the Chinese versions that have been changed to match the more-lenient language.

On November 19, BC’s Provincial Health Officer Dr Bonnie Henry said she was extending what she called “orders” across the entire province that there should be “no social gatherings of any size, with anyone, outside your immediate household” or core bubble, both in homes and the community.

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“Core bubble” refers to a maximum of two people who live outside the household of a person who lives alone.

But Henry has not said whether restaurants would have to actually enforce a one-household-per-group rule.

On Monday, when she was asked at a press conference if restaurants were expected to quiz diners and make sure there was only one household per table, she said “the onus is on all of us to do the right thing”, without clarifying what was expected of restaurants or staff.

Medical personnel wear personal protective equipment to help prevent the spread of Covid-19 as they wheel a patient into St Paul‘s Hospital in downtown Vancouver, British Columbia, on November 23. Photo: AP

On its website, the Ministry of Health continues to cite an official October 9 provincial health order that makes no mention of restricting dining groups to one household.

Restaurateur Mah blamed the ministry’s Chinese-language rules for a plunge in his business, which he said relied on Chinese-speaking customers.

“The Chinese interpretation of the Covid-19 by-laws from the English version, stressing that the people at the dining table have to be of the same household or within the safety bubble have scared away potential customers,” Mah said.

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Mah added that his restaurant was complying with other rules that tables be limited to six diners, that groups be separated by 2 metres and that customers wear masks when they were not seated at their tables.

He blamed the now-changed Chinese rules for a 35 per cent decline in business.

It is unclear when the ministry fixed the Chinese rules, but the alteration could be seen on Wednesday morning.

A worker wearing a protective mask opens an awning outside a restaurant in the West 4th shopping district in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, on November 21. Photo: Bloomberg

It is also unclear how long the stricter Chinese-language rules were in place, but archived versions of the website show it was since at least November 22.

The ministry’s website is the central hub for advice on Covid-19 rules in BC. Official organisations including the BC Centre for Disease Control and industry groups link directly to the ministry’s advice.

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The Chinese community in BC has suffered a sharp increase in racist incidents amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

But it has also been hailed for its response to the disease. Richmond – the most ethnically Chinese city in the world outside Asia, with 54 per cent of the population claiming Chinese heritage – has had lower case counts per capita than other parts of the metro Vancouver region.

Up to November 26, Richmond had experienced about 431 Covid-19 cases per 100,000 population, compared to 866 in the neighbouring City of Vancouver, and 1,616 in the Fraser South health region that includes the city of Surrey.