British Columbia·Analysis

After 14 months of COVID, B.C.'s reopening plan brings plenty of relief and plenty of questions

From meeting family and friends indoors, to travelling to different parts of the province, to even something as simple as a hug, activities that have been discouraged for more than six months are back on the table or will be in a matter of weeks.

Province doesn't plan on going backwards, even while admitting the pandemic has been full of the unexpected

Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry announces B.C.'s reopening strategy on May 25, 2021. (Mike McArthur/CBC)

Bonnie Henry wasn't the only one with tears of relief on Tuesday. 

"I'm excited and confident that we in B.C. … can see the end of the pandemic," said the province's chief health officer during Tuesday's news conference, where a detailed reopening plan for the next four months was announced

From meeting family and friends indoors, to travelling to different parts of the province, to even something as simple as a hug, activities that have been discouraged for more than six months are back on the table or will be in a matter of weeks.

More than that, after 14 months of people living in constant stress and anxiety of spreading a virus, 14 months of marathon and tunnel metaphors, 14 months of people's lives being impacted in ways big and small, the province signalled that it could come to an end — and soon. 

The emotional outpouring was palpable.

"The light that we've been talking about for weeks and weeks now is at hand," said Premier John Horgan.

But within that declaration were several caveats that all people in this province will need to keep an eye on for some time to come.

Maybe pressing pause but not going backwards

For one, the pandemic isn't over yet: two hours after the province's reopening announcement, it also announced 289 new cases and 301 people in hospital.

Based on everything we've seen in the last six weeks and everything we know about vaccines, it's likely those numbers will continue to go down for at least the next two weeks. 

But while the province said that Stage 3 and 4 of the reopening — when most restrictions will be lifted, including the order on wearing masks indoors — will only happen when case counts are "low," they didn't say what "low" specifically meant. 

And while they acknowledged that case counts could flatline or even rise due to variants or other factors, they showed no real indication that significant provincewide restrictions could be reinstated. 

"We may need to slow down how we go forward … but we're confident that we will continue to be able to move forward," said Henry.

"I don't see a situation where we're going backwards, unless things change very dramatically."

B.C. will forge ahead with restart plan unless situations change 'dramatically': DBH

2 years ago
Duration 1:49
B.C. Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said the province might need to slow down on its restart plan if new outbreaks or clusters arise, but added, as of May 25, 2021, there are no plans to go backwards.

'Expect the unexpected' 

In other words, there's a risk involved in Tuesday's announcement, in the same way the entire pandemic has been about risk management in some ways. 

"The province has to draw these fine lines and balance these very tough decisions about when to allow reopening and the economic and social benefits of that and the costs being a risk in another spike in cases," said UBC mathematical biologist Dr. Sarah Otto, a member of the B.C. COVID 19 Modelling Group, a team of researchers from SFU and UBC.

The group has warned of a possible surge in hospitalizations and cases in the past if the province moved too soon. But Otto said the combination of increased vaccinations, declining case counts and the province having metrics on when it will move to the next stage were all positives. 

"We are predicting a little bit of a spike, but likely not major, and I think that's why they've decided to open up a little bit now."

At the same time, there are many people who won't be moving forward for some time, for a variety of reasons.

And after several moments where the province has expressed confidence in its plan, only to be forced to add new restrictions or extend existing ones indefinitely, you can forgive some for being a little anxious, or even angry — particularly if they haven't had a second shot. 

The premier acknowledged that tension himself on Tuesday.

"There are going to be a lot of people who are anxious. There are people that are concerned we may go too fast … we're very confident that we have waited until the appropriate time to lay out a four-step plan to get us back to where we all want to be," he said.

However, in his very next sentence, he said, "if there is anything we've learned from COVID-19, it's to expect the unexpected." 

In other words, the province will have to live with a level of doubt and uncertainty for some time yet, even if people are encouraged to gather with family inside or visit a restaurant. 

Today though, at least from the government, was a story about finally being able to breathe a little easier. 

"If we move through these steps in a thoughtful way, following the data, making sure the science directs us, I think we can get to a better place faster," said Horgan. 

"This is a fantastic day to be in British Columbia." 

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