VANCOUVER -- The next phase of British Columbia's COVID-19 response will allow residents to host a small group of friends for dinner, get a professional haircut, and play low-contact sports.

The plans unveiled by B.C. Premier John Horgan on Wednesday make it possible for a wide variety of businesses and services to reopen as early as mid-May, including pubs and restaurants, retail stores, salons and barbershops, libraries, museums and art galleries.

Crucially, they also promise to bring back elective surgeries, and let dentists, physiotherapists, registered massage therapists, speech therapists and others in the health services sector return to work.

Addressing the province from the B.C. legislature, Horgan acknowledged that relaxing restrictions might make some people nervous, but said the government will be ready to reverse course if COVID-19 cases begin to spike.

"Today we take our first steps," the premier said.

"We're going to be doing it cautiously, based on the science."

Increased socializing

Included in the plans are guidelines for British Columbians to begin expanding their social circle beyond their own household for the first time since the province's strict physical distancing rules were imposed almost two months ago.

But officials stressed that should be done in a limited and thoughtful way to avoid causing new outbreaks, which could reverse B.C.'s fragile progress fighting the pandemic. Horgan urged people to keep their "social circles tight."

Starting on the Victoria Day long weekend, officials said residents will be allowed to gather in small groups of two to six people for dinner or a backyard barbecue. Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry even went so far as to say people could hug extended family members, provided they aren't among the groups considered at higher risk of severe complications from COVID-19.

Officials said people will have to make their own risk assessments when it comes to hugging, and that other types of visits, such as coffee dates with neighbours, should be less intimate.

Modelling unveiled by the government on Monday indicates British Columbians can resume 60 per cent of their pre-pandemic social interactions while keeping the number of new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations at a manageable level – but going beyond that would cause a sharp increase in infections that could quickly overwhelm health care resources.

Officials estimate people are currently at 30 per cent of their normal interactions, meaning the next phase will allow them to "double their bubble."

Dr. Henry said people who live with a senior or someone with a chronic health condition should be especially careful about how many people they socialize with, as each new contact increases the risk of bringing the virus home.

Getting back to business

When it comes to revving up the economy, the government said different sectors will be responsible for preparing and submitting industry-specific guidelines for keeping staff and customers safe, with support from WorkSafeBC.

Individual businesses will also have to prove they can implement those guidelines before reopening, meaning some restaurants or salons will reopen before others.

Horgan said it's important for customers to feel confident that they'll be protected when leaving the house.

"We can't just say businesses are open, let's come and spend," Horgan said.

B.C. has shed some 400,000 jobs since the pandemic began, and the premier said it would take time to aborb all those people back into the workforce.

Rob Gillezeau, an assistant professor at the University of Victoria who specializes in economics, praised the province for its approach to the crisis, despite the heavy job losses.

"By far the best thing we can do is to tackle the virus, and so I think the premier has made the correct decision to put that first," Gillezeau said.

But Gillezeau added he would have liked to see paid sick leave included as part of the province's plans – a move that would encourage people to isolate while not feeling well.

Horgan said the provinces are in talks with Ottawa to see if the federal government will fund and co-ordinate such a program.

Kids and students

Child care facilities, which are currently operating in a very limited capacity, will also be able to begin taking in more children soon provided they follow a strict set of safety protocols.

The province said staff and kids will be screened every day for symptoms, facilities will be cleaned more frequently and there will be clear policies in place to ensure nobody enters a child care facility while sick.

Similar protocols will be in place for K-12 students as the province readies to offer more in-classroom learning. The premier said this would start up well after the May long weekend and that attendance would be voluntary.

Class sizes would be smaller, with plenty of space between desks, and there would be alternating or part-time attendance for students. They’d also be required to wear non-medical masks for group activities.

Core guidelines for the public

While the relaxed restrictions announced by Horgan on Wednesday are sure to be celebrated by many socially isolated British Columbians, the government warned it won't hesitate to tighten the rules again if the virus begins to spread too quickly.

To help keep the caseload low, health officials also issued a set of personal safety guidelines that reiterate much of the same advice they have been giving to the public since early March.

Physical distancing is still recommended when outside of the home, and people are encouraged to continue washing their hands frequently, covering their mouth when they cough, and avoiding handshakes.

Most importantly, British Columbians are still strongly urged to stay home when even mildly sick, whether they are suffering symptoms of COVID-19, a common cold or the flu. That means not going to work, and not going to the grocery store if at all possible.

Looking further ahead, the province said hotels and resorts could be allowed to reopen in June, and that the film industry might be able to resume work on domestic productions as early as June or July.

Those developments will depend on whether B.C. is keeping its COVID-19 transmission rate low, however.

Borders will remain closed and international travellers will still need to self-isolate for two weeks when entering B.C. The premier and provincial health officer also cautioned against taking any inter-provincial trips that were far away, instead, encouraging people to stay close to home.