VICTORIA — British Columbia's provincial health officer is now allowing up to 10 people to meet outdoors after nearly four months of restrictions that barred in-person gatherings between people from different households.
Dr. Bonnie Henry says restrictions on indoor gatherings and rules for restaurants, bars, retail stores and other venues remain in place.
"This means your children can have a play date with their friends over the March break, but with their same group of friends," she said.
"You can meet friends outside and have a coffee, have a chat, have a connection, have a picnic in a park with your grandparents."
It's still important to practise physical distancing outside, she added.
"We can spend time with a maximum of 10 people, the same people, outside, but smaller continues to be better."
Liquor sales at bars and restaurants on St. Patrick's Day will also be restricted from 8 p.m. to the following day at 9 a.m., said Henry.
She said they know alcohol sales can allow people to lose their inhibitions and forget their COVID-19 safety plans.
While the COVID-19 infection curve is trending down on Vancouver Island and in the Interior and Northern health regions, said Henry, the illness is still circulating in communities, particularly in the Lower Mainland.
The province's seven-day rolling average number of cases has increased in recent weeks, she said, though hospitalizations have levelled off and the number of deaths being linked to the illness has decreased significantly.
Henry presented modelling data on Thursday showing the number of contacts people have right now are 50 to 60 per cent of what's normal.
"In the past, when we know we can get it down to 40, 45, 50 per cent, we can bend that curve back down," she told a news briefing.
B.C. has not seen a rapid increase in cases of COVID-19 variants of concern, Henry said, but a small cluster of the variant associated with Brazil was recently detected in the Vancouver Coastal Health region. Health officials have not seen additional transmission outside that group, she said.
There was a "slight increase" in B.C.'s mortality rate last year, Henry said, though B.C. 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 top cause.
"COVID-19 has had a profound impact on older people in our communities and the overdose deaths have had a profound effect on younger people."
B.C. reported 569 new cases Thursday and three more deaths, pushing the death toll to 1,397. There are 4,912 active COVID-19 cases in the province, including 244 people who are hospitalized with the illness.
More than 360,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccine have been administered in B.C. so far.
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. 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.”
— By Brenna Owen in Vancouver
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 11, 2021.
This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.
The Canadian Press