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N.W.T. premier urges masks, small social bubbles, after first weekend of eased restrictions

On Friday, the territory eased some of its COVID-19 restrictions, allowing gatherings of small "friend circles" and for certain businesses to reopen, with conditions.

‘No significant incident’ over the first weekend under the newly-eased restrictions, says premier

N.W.T. Premier Caroline Cochrane says her biggest worry is people expanding their social bubbles too widely, making any potential contact tracing exceedingly difficult or impossible. (Walter Strong/CBC)

The Northwest Territories premier is urging residents to wear masks, keep their social circles small and adhere to public health orders after the territory eased some of its COVID-19 restrictions ahead of the Victoria Day weekend.

"I was a bit worried about the May long weekend," said Premier Caroline Cochrane at a video press conference Tuesday, when asked about compliance with restrictions over the holiday. She said that because it was chilly out, there weren't as many complaints as anticipated. Cochrane said there was "no significant incident" over the first weekend under the newly-eased restrictions.

Last Friday, the territorial government scaled some of them back, allowing for gatherings of small "friend circles" and for certain businesses to reopen, with conditions.

Missed the press conference? Watch it here.

Keep social bubbles tight, says premier

Under the first phase of the territory's "Emerging Wisely Plan," a household can have up to five people they don't live with visit their home, with a maximum of 10 inside the house at any time. Outdoor gatherings of up to 25 people are now permitted, as long as people maintain physical distance.

Cochrane said her biggest worry now is that people will expand their social bubbles too widely, making any potential contact tracing exceedingly difficult or impossible. She urged residents to keep their family and friendship bubbles small.

"My biggest fear is that people will forget that and people might open it up too wide," she said. "Keep those units tight."

Cochrane said the limit on outdoor gatherings during phase one was set at 25 also with contact tracing in mind.

"If we do have a spread, the contact list would be a lot smaller than if we had a huge party at sandpits, which is when I was young what we used to do," she said.

"It's really important that we all play our part in this. It only takes one slip and then we're right back to containment."

Premier pushes mask wearing

Personal service businesses, such as hair salons and chiropractors, as well as museums, libraries and bottle depots can reopen with capacity limits and personal protective equipment. Farmers markets and recreational outdoor spaces such as softball diamonds, playgrounds and park day-use areas can also open up.

The premier said businesses allowed to open under phase one may do so without government approval, but they must file a risk assessment and post it somewhere in their shops.

People walk in Ottawa in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic on May 17. N.W.T. Premier Caroline Cochrane said it's 'disheartening' to see so few people wearing masks. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

"If there's complaints, we'll be looking into them, and doing routine inspections as well," Cochrane said.

"If you do go into a business and realize they're not doing social distancing, then please let us know."

The premier also implored residents to wear masks when out and about, a practice that has yet to be taken up by most shoppers.

While not mandatory, the N.W.T. Office of the Chief Public Health Officer recommends residents use reusable or disposable cloth face coverings when in public places.

"It was disheartening when I see myself and one other women in the whole store wearing masks," she said.

Cochrane said the territory has enough personal protective equipment to last about three weeks, but things could change if community spread is discovered.

Environmental health officer Chloe LeTourneau is on the task force enforcing COVID-19-related rules. On Tuesday, Premier Caroline Cochrane urged residents to call the territory's tip line if they witness a violation of public health rules. (Katie Toth/CBC)

She said the territorial Department of Industry, Tourism and Investment has put a call out for people to sew non-medical masks, and that there is funding available to support that.

Cochrane repeatedly encouraged residents to call the Protect NWT enforcement hotline if they witness a violation of public health rules

"I will never give heck to the public for phoning too much," she said.

I will never give heck to the public for phoning too much.- N.W.T. Premier Caroline Cochrane

Dr. Kami Kandola, the territory's chief public health officer, had said schools would be allowed to reopen during phase one, but the territory's school boards decided against it.

Bars, theatres and dine-in areas of restaurants remain closed through phase one of the reopening. The territory's border also remains closed to non-residents with few exceptions.

Budget to be top priority when Legislative Assembly reconvenes

The Northwest Territories legislative assembly will reconvene on May 26 with special safety measures. Its session was suspended in March due to the pandemic.

Cochrane said the members' top priority will be passing the territorial budget. Assessing the 19th Legislative Assembly's mandate is also likely to come up, she said.

"We'll be doing an analysis of the mandate and see where we stand with it and what can still be accomplished," Cohcrane said.

All five of the N.W.T.'s confirmed COVID-19 cases have recovered and the government says there is no evidence of community spread.

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