COVID-19: B.C. unveils plan to start relaxing pandemic restrictions in mid-May

Premier John Horgan is joined by Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry and Health Minister Adrian Dix as they discuss reopening the province's economy in phases in response to the COVID-19 pandemic during a press conference in the rotunda at Legislature in Victoria, B.C., on Wednesday May 6, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
Premier John Horgan is joined by Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry and Health Minister Adrian Dix as they discuss reopening the province’s economy in phases in response to the COVID-19 pandemic during a press conference in the rotunda at Legislature in Victoria, B.C., on Wednesday May 6, 2020. CHAD HIPOLITO / THE CANADIAN PRESS

VICTORIA — British Columbians will soon be able to hug loved ones, resume socializing, visit restaurants, get a hair cut and restart some outdoor recreation, as the government loosens COVID-19 restrictions and morphs into a “new normal” that could last for the next year.

Premier John Horgan outlined a plan Wednesday to reopen the economy that he said was only possible because of the sacrifices made in the past two months as people stayed at home and reduced the spread of the coronavirus.

More than 437,000 people have asked for government financial support in B.C. due to COVID-19 business closures and social distancing requirements. The provincial economy has suffered what’s expected to be its worst decline in more than 70 years.

“It’s been weeks since we’ve seen our friends or families; many feel confined and alone,” said Horgan. “This pandemic has been tough on all of us. And yet the people of B.C. have risen to the challenge with compassion and determination.”

Hair salons, beauty salons, more retail stores, restaurants, cafés, pubs, provincial parks for day use only, museums, libraries, parks, beaches and office work sites will be allowed to reopen in mid-May if they can meet new safety, distancing and hygiene guidelines. The likely date is May 14 for provincial parks and May 19 for the rest of the businesses, said Horgan.

Non-urgent surgeries, which have been postponed the past two months, are set to resume in mid-May, with more details to come from Health Minister Adrian Dix on Thursday.

It won’t be until between June and September that hotels, overnight park campsites, domestic film production, movie theatres and symphonies can reopen, according to the province.

Some in-school K-12 classes could resume on a voluntary basis before June, but it’s not until September that the province expects to fully reopen all classrooms — and then likely using alternating days for students and routine daily health screening of all kids.

Bars, nightclubs, and casinos need more planning before reopening, while conventions, live audiences for professional sports, concerts and gatherings with more than 50 people will remain banned for the foreseeable future or until a vaccine is developed. “Restrictions on large gatherings are here to stay,” said Horgan.

“It won’t be the flipping of a switch,” he said. “We will proceeding carefully, step-by-step. We need to ensure people stay healthy and British Columbians can move forward confidently as we proceed to the other side of the new normal.”

British Columbians will be allowed to expand their “social bubble” to extended family and close friends, but are encouraged to keep gatherings small and develop a plan to limit wider contacts in social networks.

Family hugs are OK, especially on Mother’s Day, but people should not travel unnecessarily on the upcoming May long weekend, said Horgan.

The reopening plan was announced 50 days after B.C. declared a public health emergency due to COVID-19.

The plans to reopen come with strict rules, through WorkSafeBC. They are similar to public health requirements during the past two months: Maintaining social distancing where possible, frequent hand washing, physical Plexiglas barriers in stores, the use of non-medical masks and frequent cleaning of frequently used areas.

B.C. will leave it up to workplaces to figure out how to adhere to these rules. Instead of reviewing thousands of individual proposals, the government wants businesses to develop their own plans based on new health guidelines and post them publicly in stores so employees, customers and health inspectors can review them.

Horgan also called on employers to show leadership in setting a “zero tolerance” policy on employees working while sick, saying they need to develop a plan to help support staff with sick days. The premier said he’s looking at various ways to enforce the measures, but stopped short of proposing legislation to mandate sick pay.

The overall goal, say health officials, is to balance the reopening of the economy with continued low COVID-19 transmission rates and enough empty hospital space to manage any surge in infections.

The provincial health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, warned B.C. may need to go through “lift and suppress” cycles where it relaxes and then clamps back down on restrictions, depending on how the pandemic develops.

VANCOUVER, BC, Yagger's Restaurant Co-owner Dan Wood is getting ready for COVID-19 restrictions to be lifted.......................(Photo credit: Francis Georgian / Postmedia) , Vancouver. VancouverReporter: ,  ( Francis Georgian   /  PNG staff [PNG Merlin Archive]
Yagger’s Restaurant Co-owner Dan Wood is keen to reopen, but says his small space can’t function with two-metre distancing. FRANCIS GEORGIAN/PNG

Reaction to the plan appeared largely positive.

“I think the plan is pretty sound,” said Jock Finlayson, executive vice-president of the B.C. Business Council.

“We’re not going back to the kind of economy and system of business operations that we had in place Jan. 31. We’re only going part way back. And the new normal for a lot of businesses is going to look somewhat different.”

Finlayson said higher operating costs for safety gear and fewer customers due to social distancing will mean less revenue for businesses already stretched close to financial ruin. It’s particularly important for the B.C. government to find ways to reduce taxes and regulatory costs on businesses during the recovery, he added.

Restaurants had rallied to develop a reopening plan that Horgan singled out for praise Wednesday. It involves extra space between tables, reservations instead of waiting for seats, some Plexiglas dividers, protective gear and fewer customers.

Restaurants that comply will have clear signage that customers can identify and trust, said Ian Tostenson, president of the B.C. Restaurant & Foodservices Association. And the sector wants to go further in expanding patios and outdoor seating, because it’s harder to transmit the virus outdoors, he said.

“The challenge now is municipal governments need to, tomorrow literally, approve the most innovative and expansive plan that deals with patios to allow restaurants to get outside,” said Tostenson. “We can’t go through applications and approvals and stuff because by the time that is done it will be snowy outside.”

Dan Wood, co-owner of Yagger’s Kits in Kitsilano, said he was optimistic that restrictions were being lifted, but his small pub/restaurant would not be able to reopen if the two metres between people rule applied.

He said he had an 80-seat business, and he would only be able to let in 15 people at a time. He was doing takeout to survive.

“It might be fine for big place like Cactus (Club) and Tap and Barrel, but not for us little guys. We figure we could only have 15 people inside with the six-feet rules in place. I don’t see us or any of the small places being able to open until they allow us to fully reopen,” Wood said.

B.C.’s beauty sector was also pleased, since hair styling, waxing, nail, massage and skin care services are all part of the mid-May opening. “We’re thrilled the entire industry has been included,” said Greg Robins, executive director of the Beauty Council of B.C. The council has worked closely with government to develop detailed plans for each business, for example masks on both customers and stylists during hair cuts.

The government needs to develop an enforcement system to make sure businesses and customers follow these new rules, said Iglika Ivanova, senior economist with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. She also called on the province to help employers and employees navigate sick days, so staff don’t lose pay or their jobs while employers can properly plan staffing.

Horgan said B.C.’s legislature will be recalled “in the next number of weeks” to allow for debates on the reopening plan and to include proposals from the opposition parties.

With a file from David Carrigg

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