N.L. to eliminate COVID-19 restrictions, move out of pandemic phase by March 14
Province to drop mask mandate, end limits on gatherings
Health officials in Newfoundland and Labrador will drop mask, vaccination passport and gathering restrictions by March 14, the province's top doctor said Wednesday, following in the footsteps of provinces across the country.
At a a briefing Wednesday afternoon, Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Janice Fitzgerald said high vaccination rates, a less severe strain of virus, and the availability of therapeutic medications all contributed to her decision to wind down pandemic mandates.
"We need to start shifting perspective. This is not the end, but the beginning of the end," Fitzgerald said.
The date holds some weight in the province's COVID-19 history, as restrictions will lift two years to the day since the first case was found on March 14, 2020.
The province will ease some restrictions on Monday, followed by a further reduction on Feb. 28.
As part of the first wave of changes, retail stores will have no capacity restrictions beginning Monday. Restaurants, gyms, fitness studios and dance studios can operate at 75 per cent capacity. Eating and drinking is permitted only when seated, and masks must be worn when not eating or drinking.
Faith-based ceremonies will move to 75 per cent capacity where the province's vaccine passport is used, and 50 per cent in places without it. Visitations will also move to 50 per cent, while wakes outside a funeral home or place of worship will be allowed 20 people.
Informal gatherings will be allowed to seat 25 people, while formal gatherings will see no change.
Sports teams will be able to compete outside of their region, but can only play one game per day. Tournaments are not permitted.
On Feb. 28, all border controls and travel restrictions will be lifted. Travellers can still voluntarily avail of rapid test kits if they wish.
Health Minister John Haggie said the decision is an important step toward the endemic phase of COVID-19.
"It is time to get back to our new normal, and this is another step along that road," he said.
Watch the full briefing here:
The province reported 179 new cases on Wednesday, along with 16 people in hospital. Six people are in critical care.
Three more deaths due to the virus were also reported, marking 60 deaths in the province since the beginning of the pandemic. All three men were over the age of 80, with two living in the Central Health region and one in the Eastern Health region.
With 176 new recoveries, there are now 1,696 known active cases in the province, but Fitzgerald said Public Health knows the number is larger. She estimated there are "two to three times" more cases than reported.
A total of 869 tests have been completed since Tuesday, with a positivity rate of 20.6 per cent.
COVID here to stay
Fitzgerald added the decision was based on science and the province's favourable epidemiology, and not on the decisions of other provinces or as a reaction to protests against restrictions happening across the country.
"We have always said we would go where the science leads us, and that's exactly what we're doing now," she said. "COVID will be here for a long time.… As a society, we must learn to live with the virus and be ready to adapt."
She said she understands the decision will cause anxiety for some, especially those who are immunocompromised.
"Just because restrictions are winding down doesn't mean you have to put away your own personal protective measures," she said.
Fitzgerald said masks will continue to be recommended after March 14. She said she believes the province has changed its way of thinking on masks, and said people should respect a person's decision to wear one.
"It's not the end of the world. It's just a bit of fabric on your face," she said.
It's possible cases will rise when restrictions are lifted, said Fitzgerald, but the province has reached a point where the consequences of restrictions outweigh the consequences of spreading COVID-19.
Booster shots for children
Officials are also introducing the option of booster shots for children ages five to 17. Immunocompromised children ages five to 11 can receive a booster dose between four and eight weeks after their second dose, while 12- to 17-year-olds can receive a full booster dose six months after their second dose.
More than 280,000 people in the province have received a booster dose, according to Premier Andrew Furey.
As of Sunday, just over 1.2 million doses of vaccine had been administered in Newfoundland and Labrador and 93.89 per cent of the population over 12 years old is fully vaccinated.
Nearly 80 per cent of children between five and 11 years old have received at least one dose of vaccine, and 37.8 per cent are fully vaccinated.
The province is also introducing changes to contact management in daycares.
If a child is exposed to COVID-19 in daycare or anywhere outside the home, they can continue to attend daycare but should self-isolate as much as possible outside of daycare for 10 days. If the case is contracted at home, current isolation rules apply.
Anyone who shows symptoms and is not a close contact of a previously known case can avail of rapid testing. If results are negative, children can return to daycare once symptoms subside.
Fitzgerald said there are no plans to introduce vaccinations for children under five.