British Columbians can gather outside in groups of up to 10 people, effective immediately, following four months of restrictions on social gatherings.
Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry amended her public health order Thursday, which had banned outdoor gatherings since November and allowed residents to only meet outside for walks.
The new guidelines mean families can have play dates and friends can meet outside for a coffee, she said.
Henry advised people should stick to the same group of people, rather than meet with several different groups. Kids who meet should stick to their same school cohorts, she said.
Despite the province's case numbers hovering around 500 per day in recent weeks, Henry said the riskiest settings are indoors and the chance of spread decreases outside.
"It is important after all these months to focus on some of the things we can do safely," she said. "Outdoors is where we need to focus right now."
She said safety measures should still be followed outside, including physical distancing.
The province's website says people can gather at a park, beach or a backyard.
Henry stressed the province's restrictions on indoor gatherings will remain in place for now. Only people who are part of the same household should meet indoors, including at restaurants.
"This is slowly turning the dial," she said. "It's not flicking the switch."
The province will also ban liquor sales at restaurants, bar and liquor stores at 8 p.m. on March 17 to limit gatherings on St. Patrick's Day, a similar tactic used on New Year's Eve.
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569 new cases, 3 deaths
Henry updated her public health order on the same day the province recorded 569 new cases of COVID-19 and three more deaths.
A total of 244 people are in hospital, with 68 people in intensive care. The province has 4,912 active cases, with another 8,900 people under public health monitoring.
More than 360,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccine have been administered in B.C. so far.
New modelling presented by Henry shows the number of contacts people are having are at about 50 to 60 per cent of normal.
The modelling projects a 50 per cent contact rate could lead to a peak in mid-March followed by a gradual decline into the spring months, but a 60 per cent contact rate could result in the number of cases surging.
That increase would largely be seen in the Fraser Health region, where cases are currently climbing, the modelling shows.
"This is not a prediction," Dr. Henry cautioned. "But it helps us understand the things that we need to do."
B.C. currently has the second-highest daily case rate per capita, after Saskatchewan. Cases are falling outside the Lower Mainland, but climbing in the Fraser Health and Vancouver Coastal Health regions.
The province's reproductive number — the number of people a person will infect — is hovering around one (a number close to or above one risks an increase in cases).
Health measures working against variants: Henry
Adding risk to the scenarios are cases of more infectious variants circulating in the community. The province has recorded more than 500 cases of the B117 variant, first identified in the U.K. Most of those cases have been found in Fraser Health.
The province has identified a small number of the B1351 variant, which first surfaced in South Africa, and the P1 variant, associated with Brazil.
The P1 variant cases are linked to a cluster in the Vancouver Coastal Health region. Henry said officials have not seen transmission from that group.
Henry said the variants are worrisome but make up a small percentage of B.C.'s cases, which suggest the province's measures are working.
She said B.C. has not seen a rapid take off of cases like Ontario, where about 40 per cent of cases are variants.
Uptick in B.C.'s mortality rate
There was also a "slight increase'' in B.C.'s overall mortality rate last year, Henry said, though the province has seen fewer "extra deaths'' due to COVID-19 than other jurisdictions, including Ontario, Quebec and the United States.
The uptick is a result of both the new coronavirus and the overdose crisis, said Henry, adding COVID-19 was the eighth most common cause of death in B.C. in 2020 and illicit drug toxicity was the fifth.
Thursday also marked one year since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic.
Henry became emotional when she said it had been a challenging year for everyone.
"I certainly recognize and acknowledge that we've all experienced losses this past year, some of them an accumulation of tiny losses of those joys, those things that we had in our lives," she said.
"And for some people, it's the tragic loss of a loved one, whether from COVID, or whether from other things in this uncertain time.''