British Columbia

Gatherings of up to 6 people to be endorsed by B.C. health officials, just in time for the long weekend

Small dinner parties, backyard barbecues and hugs with family are set to return to B.C., just in time for the Victoria Day long weekend, while haircuts, elective surgeries and dentist appointments might be available again within weeks.

Province lays out COVID-19 reopening plans, prioritizes rebooting health-care system and some businesses

Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry laughs as Premier John Horgan lays out the details for B.C.'s plan for a gradual return to normal life. (Mike McArthur/CBC)

The highlights:

  • Gatherings of 2-6 people permitted in time for long weekend.
  • Retail stores, hair salons, child care, restaurants, libraries and museums could reopen soon.
  • Elective surgeries, dental services and physiotherapy are priorities to resume in mid-May.
  • Provincial parks expected to open for day use on May 14.
  • Overnight camping could be allowed in June.
  • Hotels, movie theatres and the film industry might reopen in the summer.
  • Schools expected to be open to most students in September.
  • All reopenings will depend on detailed plans to avoid transmission of COVID-19.
  • Nightclubs, bars and casinos will not reopen anytime soon.
  • The ban on gatherings of more than 50 people remains in place.

Small dinner parties, backyard barbecues and hugs with family are set to return to B.C., just in time for the Victoria Day long weekend, while haircuts, elective surgeries and dentist appointments might be available again within weeks.

The provincial government announced its plans Wednesday for a gradual return to normal life in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

During a technical briefing with reporters that was closed to the public, B.C. officials said that beginning next weekend, gatherings with two to six guests will be OK, as long as there's a strict understanding that no one will socialize if they have any symptoms of COVID-19, including coughing and sneezing.

For that to happen, however, B.C. will have to stay on its current trajectory, Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said. That means the rate of new infections and hospitalizations will have to remain low.

The goal of B.C.'s reopening plan, according to public health officials, is to allow for a return to about 60 per cent of normal interactions, without causing a surge in infections.

"It won't be the flipping of a switch. We'll be proceeding carefully bit by bit, one step at a time," Premier John Horgan said.

"If we lose this discipline, everything we've worked towards will be lost."

Provincial parks will be open for day use as of May 14.

Even long-verboten signs of affection like hugging extended family members and close friends may be acceptable, under certain circumstances.

"If your [social] circle has been tight … I welcome you to hug your mom," Horgan said. "If your mom has got a compromised immune system, it's best to keep that distance."

In all cases where people are opening up their social circles and renewing physical contact, Henry says it's important to consider who someone else may be interacting with and how that might affect the risk of transmission.

As of Wednesday, B.C. had 2,255 confirmed COVID-19 cases — an increase of 23 cases from Tuesday — and three more deaths. In total, 124 people have died of the novel coronavirus in B.C.

Priority sectors could begin reopening mid-May

The province set out guidelines Wednesday for the reopening of some sectors of the economy, on the understanding that physical distancing and hygiene measures can be maintained.

"We will not move ahead until it's safe to do so," Horgan said.

The priorities beginning on May 19 will include rebooting parts of the health-care system that have been idle, like dental care, physiotherapy and chiropractic, scheduled surgeries, outpatient services, diagnostic testing and imaging services. 

British Columbians can also expect the return of services like hair salons, retail stores, museums, libraries, restaurants, pubs, office-based workplaces, transit, sports leagues, provincial parks and child care.

Nightclubs, bars and casinos are unlikely to reopen any time soon, and the ban on gatherings of more than 50 people will remain in place. Conventions, large concerts and live audiences at team sports are out of the question, and Horgan said road trips and non-essential travel to other communities should still be avoided.

A true return to normal won't be possible until a vaccine has been developed and administered across the province, effective treatments are available or there is widespread immunity to the novel coronavirus.

Two people kiss in a public park near Vancouver's seawall on Wednesday. The province says physical displays of affection with extended family and close friends are acceptable in the next phase of the COVID-19 pandemic response plan. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

In order to reopen, B.C. employers must have clear policies to make sure that anyone who has symptoms of a cold, the flu or COVID-19 does not go into work, provincial health officials said.

Sick day policies have to be developed on the understanding that staff will stay home sick more often, the province says, and employers need to come up with plans to accommodate seniors and those with existing medical conditions.

Hotels could reopen in June, schools in September

Different sectors will be asked to develop plans for how they can meet the expectations of public health officials, and WorkSafeBC will work with industry associations to make sure those plans are adequate.

In all cases, the priorities will be physical distancing measures to keep people at two metres from each other, masks if that isn't possible and frequent cleaning — especially for areas that are touched by many people. 

Employers are being asked to forgo in-person meetings, encourage working from home when possible, and when it isn't, look into setting up staggered shifts.

Between June and September, if infection rates remain under control, businesses and activities like hotels and resorts, the film industry, overnight camping in provincial parks, movie theatres, symphonies and schools will be the priority for reopening.

Here are some of the province's expectations for the reopening of specific sectors:

Retail (beginning in mid-May):

  • Measures to reduce lineups by setting up more checkout stations.
  • Installing plexiglas to protect workers.
  • Encouraging online shopping.
  • Encouraging use of masks.
  • Reminding customers not to shop when they're sick.

Hair salons, barbers and spas (beginning in mid-May):

  • Requiring appointments.
  • Reducing or eliminating waiting areas.
  • Reminding clients not to come in for services when they're sick.
  • Encouraging use of masks.

Child care (beginning in mid-May):

  • Routine screening of children and staff for symptoms.
  • Clear policies about not attending when displaying symptoms of illness.

Schools (September):

  • Daily screening of staff and students.
  • Frequent cleaning.
  • Smaller class sizes.
  • Clear policies around not attending when displaying symptoms of illness.
  • Planning for increased use of online learning, especially for high school students.
  • 14-day self-isolation policies for arriving international students.

Sports, recreation and camps (beginning in mid-May):

  • Daily screening for symptoms.
  • Low contact outdoor sports are considered safer.
  • Clear policies around not attending when displaying symptoms of illness.
  • Those at higher risk of serious illness should not participate.

If you have a COVID-19-related story we should pursue that affects British Columbians, please email us at impact@cbc.ca

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