COVID-19 rules relaxed: B.C. allows dining with friends, some gatherings, limited travel
VANCOUVER -- The B.C. government has relaxed several of the tough COVID-19 rules that residents have been living under for weeks – and laid out a rough timeline for returning to a "more normal life" in the months ahead.
Under the provincial restart plan unveiled Tuesday, British Columbians are welcome to meet a few friends at a restaurant and dine indoors, host a small number of visitors inside their home, and travel for recreational purposes within their own designated travel zone.
Those and other loosened rules are effective immediately, officials said.
And if the province can meet certain vaccination thresholds while keeping COVID-19 case numbers low, the government is hopeful that many more restrictions can be eased throughout the summer.
That could mean the resumption of normal social contacts, more live sports, a reopening of nightclubs and casinos, and recreational travel across B.C. and Canada at various points from June through September.
But Premier John Horgan stressed that the government will only be taking those incremental steps if doing so is supported by the public health data.
"We've made extraordinary sacrifices as a province and as a people over the past 15 months," Horgan said at a news conference. "We don't want to lurch forward only to have to lurch back."
The government's restart plan is divided into four steps, but only the first one – which is now underway – has a firm date. The other three are estimated to start on June 15, July 1 and Sept. 7 at the earliest, depending on the state of the pandemic in B.C.
"We will be staying flexible because we know this virus has some tricks up its sleeve still," provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said. "We will be continuing to monitor what's happening around the globe because we know that we're not all safe until everyone has been immunized, and that still is quite a challenge in many parts of the world."
The public can do its part to keep B.C. on track by continuing to follow mask guidance, staying home while sick and getting their shot as soon as possible, Henry added.
WHAT'S ALLOWED UNDER STEP 1
For now, B.C. residents can once again dine indoors at bars and restaurants in parties of up to six people, and those groups do not need to come from the same household. Establishments must continue to follow their existing WorkSafeBC safety plans, and stop serving liquor at 10 p.m.
British Columbians can also host small dinner parties and similar get-togethers indoors at home, but only with a maximum of five visitors or one household. The existing group limit of 10 people for socializing outdoors remains in place.
Officials are also now allowing organized outdoor gatherings – such as weddings – of up to 50 people, provided that they are seated and there's a safety plan in place.
While the travel restriction barring B.C. residents from moving between the government's three designated travel zones for non-essential reasons has been extended, officials said residents are free to travel recreationally within their own zone.
Outdoor team sports are allowed for all ages, but not with spectators. And low-intensity indoor fitness classes, such as pilates, can once again operate indoors in limited capacity.
ROCK CONCERTS, NEW MASK GUIDANCE TO COME
The easing of restrictions is sure to be welcome news to many British Columbians, and there's much more to be hopeful about in the months ahead.
As early as mid-June, the government is expecting to reopen movie theatres, allow recreational travel across the province, resume indoor team sports and high-intensity fitness classes, and extend liquor hours in bars and restaurants to midnight.
Heading into July, B.C.'s restart plan tentatively includes a "return to usual for indoor or outdoor personal gatherings" – allowing things like family reunions – and increased capacity for organized gatherings that would allow for fairs and festivals. Bingo halls, nightclubs and casinos could reopen with limited capacity. The government also suggested its mask mandate could be lifted in favour of a mask recommendation.
The last step estimated to begin in early September includes a return to large gatherings such as rock concerts, Halloween parties, and spectator sports, as well as the resumption of pre-pandemic social contacts, according to the province's plans. By this point, officials also describe mask use as a "personal choice."
TARGETS FOR CONTINUING TO REOPEN
Before advancing their restart plan, B.C. officials will be considering COVID-19 case counts, hospitalizations and the number of residents with at least partial vaccine protection against the virus.
The material presented by Henry on Tuesday indicates that cases and hospitalizations must still be declining in order for the province to enter Step 2 as early as June 15. At least 65 per cent of adults must also have received their first dose of vaccine – a goal the province has already met.
So far, B.C. has administered 2,778,908 first doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and AstraZeneca vaccines, which is enough to cover 54 per cent of the entire provincial population, including children and teenagers.
The government would like to see 70 per cent of adults partially vaccinated in order to move into Step 3 in July, and for COVID-19 cases to be "low." Health officials did not specify exactly what that will mean in terms of infection numbers.
The plans do not include targets for second doses. Henry said the additional protection offered by being fully vaccinated is important – particularly if a new and concerning variant should arrive in the province – but that a single dose "gets us to the point where we can reduce transmission in the community to the point where it's manageable and we can start lifting restrictions."
Officials acknowledged there may be concerns from some in the province that things are moving too quickly, particularly among those who are immune-compromised and have faced greater personal risk throughout the pandemic.
Henry said throughout the crisis, the government has sought to balance protecting the public from severe illness and keeping the health-care system functioning while minimizing "societal disruption," and the impacts on people's health and well-being that come along with that. That balancing act will continue throughout the summer.
"You will need to keep taking precautions to protect yourself, protect those around you," Henry said. "We all need to be mindful and respectful of that, because not everybody is in the same boat, as we've been saying from the very beginning of the storm."