VANCOUVER -- For the first time in months, health officials in British Columbia are allowing families to visit relatives in long-term care homes and assisted living facilities.

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry announced the relaxed rules on Tuesday while acknowledging how difficult it has been for seniors to spend the pandemic cut off from their children and grandchildren.

"I know for many seniors and elders in long-term care, the impact of being separated from their loved ones has been immense," Henry said. "There have been many dark and anxious days, but today is a brighter day for us all."

Officials said the process will be gradual, beginning with each senior being allowed a single designated visitor who will meet them in a designated visiting area at their care home.

"We are going to start slowly and as we expect things will progress well, we'll expand these activities as we have done with every other activity," Henry said.

There are a number of provincial requirements that facilities must follow, and which will posted on the B.C. Centre for Disease Control website, including that they have a dedicated staff person who can screen people as they arrive.

Guests must also bring a mask and wear it properly during the visit.

Each individual home must have an approved safety plan in place before they begin welcoming visitors again, and officials said it could take a week to 10 days for them to get set up. A number of facilities are already working with their local medical health officer on those plans, Henry added.

Seniors are among the groups most vulnerable to severe COVID-19 infections, and make up the vast majority of people who have died from the virus in B.C.

Officials said they approached the easing of care home restrictions with great caution, but that a number of factors have given them confidence that they can pull it off safely. That includes the low COVID-19 caseload in the province, and the fact that personal protective equipment is now well stocked and readily available where needed.

"Of course, we're all a little anxious because we know what can happen if we don't get this right," Henry said. "It is something that has weighed on us, and me as well, over the last many weeks, but moving thoughtfully, with care, will give us the confidence that we need to move forward."

In addition to visitors, the new rules allow for care homes to bring personal service providers, such as hairdressers, into facilities. Officials said the gradual easing of restrictions will be monitored throughout July, and if successful could be expanded in August.

Visitors will still be banned at facilities battling active outbreaks of the virus. There are currently five such facilities in B.C.

Health Minister Adrian Dix said the province is also providing more than $160 million in funding for each of B.C.'s 680 long-term care homes and assisted living facilities to hire up to three full-time equivalent staff members.

The government will also cover $26.5 million in costs incurred from March through June for sick time and other expenses associated with the pandemic.

Dix said he's proud of the work care home employees have done throughout the crisis, which saw a number of devastating outbreaks spring up both before and after officials implemented their single-site policy for staff.

He also acknowledged that while B.C. has fared better than many other jurisdictions, there have still been tragedies for many families.

"We have lost almost 100 people in long-term care. We have lost a small handful of people who live in assisted living facilities," he said. "This for me, and I know for all of you, regardless of how people do in other places, is too many, and has a real consequence."