Outdoor visits are currently allowed at Saskatchewan care homes, but with some major caveats, according to the Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA).
Only people already allowed access under the province's compassionate care visitation system can visit with their loved ones outside, just as they've been allowed to do indoors for the last four and a half months.
And no hugging is allowed.
"Although we understand how difficult this is for family members, in order to maintain physical distancing guidelines and maintain safe outdoor visiting, you will not be able to touch your loved one," according to a recently published FAQ on outdoor visits.
No date set yet for relaxing visitation rules
On Nov. 19, during the province's second wave of COVID-19, Saskatchewan placed its care homes under near-total lockdown. Only staff and visitors who qualified under the compassionate care system were allowed in.
Under that system — which remains in place — people who could demonstrate that they helped meet unmet physical or emotional needs for their loved ones, as well as people with dying or weakening relatives, are allowed into homes.
The system applies to both publicly- and privately-operated homes, according to SHA.
On Thursday, the SHA confirmed that outdoor visits are currently limited to compassionate care visitors.
"Outdoor visitation is permitted for compassionate care reason family presence," a spokesperson said, adding that the health authority did not have the number of people who qualify.
Outdoor visits are not permitted if a home is placed under Level 3 family presence status, the most restrictive of three statuses, the spokesperson added.
Long-term care homes in Regina as well as the southwest and southeast areas of the province were placed under Level 3 on Thursday over fears around rising COVID-19 variant cases.
CBC News asked the Ministry of Health this week when care homes might be opened up to the wider public.
"We are working with the Saskatchewan Health Authority and constantly monitoring the situation, but at this time no date has been set for changing this policy. When the decision is made a public announcement will be made," a spokesperson said.
Health Minister Paul Merriman said it's important to have a high percentage of vaccinated residents and staff in a home.
"We need to have both ends of that to make sure it's safe," Merriman said Thursday at a COVID-19 news conference.
As of Thursday, 74 per cent of long-term care residents had received two doses of COVID-19 vaccine, while 41 per cent of health-care workers offered the vaccine so far — including people who work in nursing homes — had received both doses.
Dr. Saqib Shahab, Saskatchewan's chief medical health officer, said there have recently been a few outbreaks only affecting staff because of staff vaccination rates not being as high as resident vaccination rates.
Shahab also had a strong caution for care home visitors.
"As time moves on, we expect that all people who visit their loved ones in long-term care will get vaccinated as soon as they are able to," he said.
"Unless you have a contraindication [with medications], I don't think it's appropriate for anyone to visit someone in a long-term care facility [if they were] eligible for vaccination and chose not to get vaccinated."
Guidelines for safe outdoor visits
Last month, the health authority published a series of documents stressing the guidelines outdoor visitors must follow.
In addition to the ban on hugs, visitors must wear a medical-grade mask and keep a distance of two metres from the care home resident. Visitors can get close to each other if they're from the same household.
Up to 10 visitors are allowed per resident. Visits need to be arranged in advance with the home and visitors will be screened beforehand.
Walks are not allowed.
"For now, we will not be able accommodate this given the physical distancing guidelines that need to be followed. We look forward to when we can safely co-ordinate this in the future," according to the FAQ.
Each home will determine the setup for outdoor visits and is "encouraged to be creative to facilitate it safely."