Nfld. & Labrador

N.L. extends COVID-free streak as Ball suggests Atlantic bubble could expand

Newfoundland and Labrador is opening its border to Atlantic Canada on July 3, and could open it to all of Canada on July 17.

Ball says borders could be open to all Canadians on July 17

Premier Dwight Ball says an 'Atlantic bubble' could be extended to include other provinces on July 17, so long as the situation remains stable. (Government of Newfoundland and Labrador)

There are no new positive cases of COVID-19 in Newfoundland and Labrador on Wednesday, on the eve of a shift to Alert Level 2 of the province's phased reopening plan.

The province has been without a known case of COVID-19 for a week.

Also announced Wednesday is an "Atlantic bubble" — an agreement between all four Atlantic provinces to have free movement between provinces starting July 3, with no requirement for self isolation.

Premier Dwight Ball said Newfoundland and Labrador will also begin easing travel restrictions with other provinces on July 17, so people from other provinces would be able to visit Newfoundland and Labrador "like anyone within the Atlantic bubble would be able to."

Ball didn't clarify who could be included, saying it would have to be assessed after the first two weeks of the Atlantic bubble.

It's a surprise move from the Newfoundland and Labrador premier, who said on June 11 the province wasn't ready to strike an agreement with its Atlantic counterparts.

Dr. Janice Fitzgerald, chief medical officer of health, answers a question at the provincial government's COVID-19 briefing Wednesday. (Government of Newfoundland and Labrador)

Three days ago, Ball said there was still work to be done. On Wednesday, Ball said the plans came together after a meeting the night before.

When asked by the St. John's Telegram if his hesitation was because Dr. Janice Fitzgerald, the province's chief medical officer of health, was opposed to the plan, both Ball and Fitzgerald said no.

"This whole idea of being forced into an Atlantic bubble is just not the case," Ball said, noting public health officials helped shape the plan to merge borders. "Keeping people safe, keeping Newfoundlanders and Labradorians safe, has always been the top priority."

Newfoundland and Labrador last had an active COVID-19 case on June 17, and last had a new positive case on May 28.

Despite the announcement of the Atlantic bubble, Marine Atlantic told CBC's On The Go Wednesday afternoon that the Argentia-North Sydney ferry service for the 2020 summer tourism season will remain suspended.

"Our plan is to resume the Argentia-North Sydney ferry service for the 2021 summer season. As part of our COVID-19 response, our operational plan provides two sailings each day from Port aux Basques and North Sydney," said a spokesperson.

How would it work?

Ball said decisions for borders in the Atlantic provinces will be up to each province — meaning if there is an outbreak, Ball could decide to take Newfoundland and Labrador out of the agreement, or limit the agreement to exclude certain provinces.

There is no plan right now to set up testing sites at the entry points to the province, but Ball said visitors will have to give their information to a public health official and be available for contact after their arrival.

Fitzgerald said the province is coming up with a revamped plan for testing in the fall, when schools will be back in session and an increase in cases is expected.

"At the moment, there is no plan to increase our testing at the border," Fitzgerald said. "But we will certainly be looking at the best way forward with testing."

What opens Thursday?

Level 2 of the economic recovery plan will see gatherings of up to 50 people allowed if physical distancing can be ensured.

There are no specific guidelines on personal bubble expansions. Fitzgerald said it's advised that people should stick to their double bubbles, but it's understandable that with workplaces and businesses expanding, a person's list of contacts will also expand.

"You have your bubbles as they are … and really what we're saying right now as we move about more is you have to keep your contacts outside your bubble as low as you can," Fitzgerald said.

Level 2 will see places like movie theatres, gyms, arenas, playgrounds and bars reopening. More routine medical procedures will begin, pending announcements from the province's four regional health authorities.

As of Thursday, the provincial government will allow the use of playground equipment. (Lukas Wall/CBC)

Some restaurants and bars that serve food have already reopened with a maximum of 50 per cent capacity, while buffets and spaces for larger gatherings — including dance floors and karaoke areas — will remain closed.

Video lottery terminals will be permitted as of Thursday, but must be spaced to ensure physical distancing and must be disinfected after each use. Hand sanitizer must be available for players at each machine.

Bars are also being asked to keep music volumes low, to discourage people from having to raise their voices. Guidance from the government notes that yelling and singing can lead to droplets spraying through the air, raising the risk of transmission of coronavirus.

Future restrictions could be regionalized

This will be the last downward level change before a vaccine is made available.

There's always the possibility the province could move back up the chain, if an outbreak happens and there's a large number of cases with an unknown source.

Fitzgerald said she's ready for that scenario, and expects new cases won't be met with the same strict decisions as the first wave.

Watch Wednesday's COVID-19 briefing below:

"We've been very fortunate. We've got used to living with no cases. I think that people need to be aware and be ready that we are likely going to see cases," she said.

"We are in a different place than we were in March. I think that we will be able to see cases in the future and be able to manage that without going down the same road we did before."

Fitzgerald said one possibility is the provincial government could implement restrictions on a regional basis, rather than province-wide. That would allow people living outside of places with confirmed cases to live more normal lives.

Across Newfoundland and Labrador, every citizen has been subject to the same restrictions despite the fact that 93 per cent of those cases were identified in the Eastern Health region.

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