British Columbia is taking its first tentative steps back to pre-pandemic life, announcing on Tuesday a four-step reopening plan that could see people socializing normally again as early as September if case counts and hospitalizations decline.
The four steps outlined by the province are a roadmap through the spring and summer, paving the way for a return to family gatherings, intimate celebrations, fuller restaurants and freer travel for the first time in more than a year.
"The light we've been talking about for weeks and weeks now is in hand," said Premier John Horgan at a news conference.
As of Tuesday, residents can once again dine indoors, hit the gym for low-intensity workouts, play outdoor sports and hold faith-based gatherings in person — though all of those activities still have to happen on a smaller scale with safety protocols in place.
Masks and physical distancing measures remain mandatory. Recreational travel is allowed, but still only within the province's three regional health zones.
In all, the following is now allowed under Step 1 of B.C.'s restart plan:
Up to five visitors for a personal indoor gathering.
Up to 10 visitors for either a personal outdoor gathering or seated, indoor organized gatherings.
Up to 50 people for seated, outdoor organized gatherings.
Indoor dining with up to six people; no mingling with other tables allowed.
Outdoor sports games with no spectators.
Indoor, in-person faith-based gatherings at a reduced capacity based on consultation with public health.
Officials defined an informal gathering is something like a small backyard barbecue, while a "seated, organized" gathering is something like an intimate wedding ceremony.
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The restart plan is entirely contingent on case counts dropping, hospitalizations declining and 70 per cent of the population getting vaccinated. It also relies on the assumption that variants do not significantly alter health outcomes for COVID-19 patients or the efficacy of vaccines.
If the data trends in the right direction, restrictions on travel within B.C. could be lifted in Step 2 — around June 15, at the earliest. Travelling within Canada could be acceptable by Step 3, around July 1.
Under the province's plan, virtually all public health orders could be removed as early as Sept. 7. Masks would be a "personal choice" and events and socializing would happen as they did before the pandemic, officials said.
Daily case counts and active case counts in B.C. have come down by 61 and 55 per cent, respectively, since peaking in April. Hospitalizations are also down 38 per cent. Roughly 60 per cent of British Columbians over 18 have had at least one dose of vaccine.
As of Monday, the province's rolling average of cases and active caseload were at their lowest points in six months.
Reopening will stir up anxiety for some, province says
Those looking to return to some semblance of normal life after following guidelines for the better part of 15 months will likely be encouraged by Tuesday's announcement, while those who hoped for a continued level of higher caution — given the ongoing presence of variants and outstanding need for second doses of vaccine — might be left feeling uneasy.
Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said some might choose to take extra, personal precautions and urged residents to respect each other's boundaries. She implored everyone to continue to stay home and get tested when feeling sick.
Henry said officials will slow down the reopening if concerning outbreaks or case clusters arise, but only for as long as necessary to allow public health to manage those cases.
"We'll be staying flexible because we know this virus still has some tricks up its sleeve,'' she said.
"I don't see a situation where we're going backwards unless things change very dramatically," she added. "We never say never, but the plan is to keep moving forward."
The news comes 483 days after B.C. announced its first confirmed case of the novel coronavirus. More than 142,000 people have been infected and more than 1,600 have died.
B.C. imposed restrictions at the end of March on indoor dining and group fitness classes, while backtracking on an old plan to allow indoor faith services as case counts shot to record highs.
The restrictions were supposed to last until April 19 but were extended as case counts rose. Officials introduced more restrictions on travel, which are the same rules still in effect during Step 1 of the restart plan.
Travel is limited within three health regions, which are areas covered by the Fraser and Vancouver Coastal health authorities; the Northern and Interior health authorities; and Vancouver Island. Those without a valid reason for travel face a $575 fine.