British Columbia will move to Step 3 of its pandemic reopening plan on Thursday, lifting the provincial mask mandate and government state of emergency declaration.
Encouraged by low daily case totals, declining hospitalizations and rising vaccinations, the move ends restrictions on social gatherings and indoor and outdoor dining and allows large outdoor events like fairs and festivals with up to 5,000 people.
Recreational travel within Canada will also be encouraged. “I believe it’s safe to take the next step forward,” said Premier John Horgan Tuesday.
Businesses will no longer need COVID-19 safety plans and will operate with more general communicable diseases strategies, including not allowing mingling between tables in restaurants and bars. Casinos and nightclubs may also reopen with limited capacity.
It is still recommended that anyone who has not been fully vaccinated wear a mask indoors. The public health emergency declaration, which allows the provincial health officer to enact broad orders, remains in effect.
The news came as B.C. reported 29 new cases and no new deaths on Tuesday, with 110 individuals hospitalized including 34 in intensive care.
The province expects to deliver its five millionth dose of vaccine in the next 24 hours, and 77 per cent of eligible people over 12 have received at least one dose, with 29.5 per cent having both shots.
But the new rules and end of regular media briefings signal B.C. is moving closer to a maintenance phase of the pandemic, despite the low number of fully vaccinated people and the spread of new, more transmissible variant strains.
Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said COVID-19 remains her office’s primary concern, but it’s safe to ease restrictions issued by her office.
“We are continuing our gradual and measured approach to bringing us back together,” she said. “We will continue to follow every case and manage outbreaks and clusters and transmission.”
Evidence from the United Kingdom suggests second shots are crucial to protect against the Delta variant and other strains of the virus, increasing effectiveness at preventing hospitalization from around 30 per cent with one dose to as high as 80 per cent.
Second shots are an essential part of ending the pandemic in B.C., Henry said, but current protection levels are preventing about 70 per cent of new infections according to provincial modelling released Monday.
“Even with a single dose our protection is high enough that we no longer need such restrictive measures,” said Henry.
Henry, Horgan and Health Minister Adrian Dix noted that individual choices to continue to wear a mask or keep social circles small should be respected, as should businesses that continue to require staff and customers to wear masks indoors.
“We’ve never been through something like this before… so we need to be patient,” said Henry. “We never know someone’s individual situation.”
Everyone should continue to stay home when sick, respect others’ personal comfort levels and continue washing their hands.
“We’re turning up the dial slowly, but things are a lot brighter today,” Henry said.