Province opens up, hope grows as COVID-19 numbers continue to drop

As daily numbers of COVID-19 continue to drop to more manageable levels across the province, steps have been taken to loosen public health restrictions.

Last week in-person classes resumed at all public and private schools in Nova Scotia.

All school gyms province-wide will remain closed to community use, the province said, noting that at schools that are open, school teams will be allowed to practice inside the school but there will be no games.

Families not ready to access their child care space may continue to keep their child home and have their space held until June 30 without paying fees, the province said, noting that families are encouraged to talk to their providers regarding the timing of re-enrolling their child.

But as of July 1, the province said families must pay their fees or withdraw from child care.

The province said it will continue to support the child care sector with emergency funding as needed until June 30, including operational and staffing costs incurred as a result of a delayed return by some families. They said it will also continue to provide personal protective equipment to centres.

Also last week, licensed child care centres and family daycare homes across the province returned to 100 per cent capacity.

With Nova Scotia’s numbers at or below 20 new cases, Premier Iain Rankin and Dr. Robert Strang, Nova Scotia’s chief medical officer of health, announced that the province will reopen gradually under a five-phase plan.

The province said each phase is expected to last between two and four weeks.

The province said travel is no longer restricted within most of Nova Scotia.

The province said most businesses have opened further, outdoor visits are permitted at long-term care facilities, and outdoor gathering limits increased.

The province said Nova Scotians can gather outdoors with a consistent social group of up to 10 people without physical distance. They said the limit for indoor gatherings remains confined to the bubble but two households with one or two people each can still join together but they must be the same two households all the time.

The province said faith gatherings can be held outdoors with a limit of 10 plus officiants when hosted by a recognized organization and drive-in services are allowed with no limit on numbers.

Wedding and funeral ceremonies remain limited to five, plus officiants indoors but can increase to 10 plus officiants outdoors, and the province said there can be no receptions or visitations.

Restaurants and licensed establishments can open patios at their maximum capacity with physical distance between tables, a limit of 10 people per table and masks when people are not eating or drinking, but they must stop service by 11 p.m. and close by midnight, the province said.

The province said all retail stores can operate at 25 per cent capacity.

Personal services such as hair salons, barber shops and spas can operate by appointment only following their sector plan but cannot offer services that require removing the customer’s mask, the province said.

Fitness and recreation facilities can offer outdoor activities with a limit of 10 people with physical distancing, or multiple groups of 10 that are distanced on their own property, as well as one-on-one personal training indoors, the province said.

The province said outdoor pools can open with a limit of 10 people at a time with physical distancing.

Organized sports practices can have 10 people outdoors without physical distancing, or multiple groups of 10 that are distanced, the province noted.

Professional arts and culture organizations can hold rehearsals with 15 people indoors and amateur rehearsals can have 10 people outdoors without physical distancing, the province confirmed.

Drive-in theatres can operate with no limit on numbers, they said.

The province said campgrounds can offer season and short-term camping following their sector plan with distance between campsites.

Also last week, licensed child care centres and family daycare homes across the province returned to 100 per cent capacity.

Residents of long-term care facilities can have visitors outdoors but visitors must wear masks and no physical distance is required if the resident is fully vaccinated, the province said. They said recreation activities and services such as hairstyling can resume for fully vaccinated residents of long-term care facilities.

Fully vaccinated residents of homes licensed by the Department of Health and Wellness under the Homes for Special Care Act can resume access to their communities for work or school, the province noted.

Fully vaccinated residents of homes licensed by the Department of Community Service under the Homes for Special Care Act can resume access to their communities for work, therapy, recreation and family visits, the province confirmed.

The province said more people can get exceptions to enter Nova Scotia for end-of-life visits with immediate family members.

Students from within Canada can apply to enter the province for in-person or virtual studies if they are enrolled in the summer semester, the province added.

A passenger testing program at the Halifax Stanfield International Airport is planned, the province said, adding that, “other border testing measures are being considered.”

Strang said the provincial epidemiology is going in the right direction and more than 50 per cent of Nova Scotians have one or more doses of vaccine, so taking “first cautious steps” toward re-opening makes sense. He said when deciding to move to the each phase, officials will consider case numbers, hospitalizations, the use of health system resources, and the percentage of Nova Scotians who’ve been vaccinated, noting “The more people who get vaccinated, the more we can reopen our province.”

For his part, the Premier said in-person learning is best for children.

That was not a sentiment shared by the Nova Scotia Teacher’s Union which said the Premier’s commitment to maintaining remote learning for the final few weeks of June brought closure and a level of certainty to students, teachers and families. They said the announcement will generate more anxiety and needless confusion for families already struggling under the impacts of this pandemic, according to the NSTU.

Given how many teachers and students were infected just a few weeks ago in schools, and how little time remains in the academic year, the NSTU president said reversing the decision now for a brief return to school brings with it significant risk.

From mid-April to early May, there were over 60 schools across Nova Scotia with positive COVID-19 cases, often more than one, the NSTU noted. Since then, the union said nearly 1,000 children have tested positive for COVID-19 in Nova Scotia, as well as many teachers and school staff, who in some cases were hospitalized.

In late April, Wozney said government and public health repeatedly assured families that schools were safe for kids, “when clearly they were not.” He said hearing those same assurances will stir up negative emotions for those directly impacted by COVID-19 at their school.

The NSTU president pointed to the dangers of new variants and their impact on children, which Dr. Strang has said is more severe than the original virus. He said thousands of students in crowded classrooms, with “minimal” safety precautions, without having been vaccinated could be a recipe for disaster.

Despite this doom and gloom scenario, plans are being made to loosen more public health restrictions, and it doesn’t look like the province is changing its mind.

The data is conclusive; the province’s COVID-19 numbers are going down, hotspots like Halifax Regional Municipality and Cape Breton Regional Municipality are cooling off, and as a result, the province must re-open accordingly.

It is unfortunate that a mixed message was sent to the province’s teachers, parents and students, but schools had to re-open, if only briefly, so this province can get back on track.