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Nova Scotia says latest COVID-19 wave crushed, announces cautious reopening plan

HALIFAX — As Nova Scotia emerges from the biggest COVID-19 outbreak to hit the Atlantic region since the pandemic began, the province released Friday a cautious plan to reopen the economy and lift lockdown restrictions.

Unlike other provinces, Nova Scotia’s plan doesn’t include any dates. Instead, Premier Iain Rankin unveiled a complex, five-phase strategy that won’t progress until the province meets certain vaccination rates and hospitalization numbers.

“It’s based on data, not dates,” Rankin told a news conference.

The province’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. Robert Strang, said each phase could take as little as two weeks to complete. But if the province fails to reach its targets or infections spike, each phase could take up to four weeks.

Strang suggested that life in Nova Scotia could return to normal — a new normal — as early as September, but only if 75 per cent of Nova Scotians have had two doses of vaccine and there are no outbreaks.

“Then it will be about living with COVID-19 and, hopefully, very limited restrictions and voluntary public health measures, such as masking,” he said.

He said it could be as early as July 1 that conditions would allow Nova Scotia to rejoin the Atlantic Bubble, an arrangement that allows residents to travel within the region without having to self-isolate.

And the province’s top doctor hinted that travellers from outside the region may be allowed to travel to Nova Scotia for non-essential reasons as early as August.

Strang, however, made it clear that the province’s “slow, steady and cautious” approach could take much longer to complete if the four-week cycles are needed.

When asked why it was that other provinces appear to be moving faster, Strang said: “A slow approach actually works.”

“It’s wrong to lock ourselves into dates,” he said. “It creates expectations we may not be able to meet.”

Rankin said Nova Scotia’s decision in late April to quickly lock down the province and impose tough restrictions on travel had helped the province quickly subdue a serious outbreak.

“The wave is being crushed in almost record time, when you look at what’s happening across the country,” he said. “How? Because we locked down quickly and decisively.”

Last weekend, Nova Scotia’s active case count dropped below 1,000 for the first time since May 3. And on Thursday, 33 new cases were reported — the lowest daily total since April 21.

On Friday, health officials reported 40 new cases and the province’s 80th COVID-related death — a woman in her 50s. Among the province’s 585 active cases, 53 were in hospital, including 18 in intensive care.

Meanwhile, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island unveiled their reopening plans Thursday — and Newfoundland and Labrador is expected to do the same next week.

The P.E.I. government hopes to welcome select travellers from across the country as early as Aug. 8, and then open to everyone as of Sept. 12. In New Brunswick, the government plans to drop all pandemic-related restrictions by Aug. 2 — assuming the province can meet its vaccine targets and there are no outbreaks.

In Halifax, Strang announced Friday that the province would begin on-site COVID-19 testing at Halifax Stanfield International Airport by June, but no details were provided.

He also provided details about the five-phase reopening plan.

Under Phase 1, restrictions on travel within most of Nova Scotia were lifted Friday. However, people were asked to avoid non-essential travel in and out of the Cape Breton Regional Municipality and much of the Halifax region because of community transmission in those areas.

Other changes will begin to take effect next Wednesday, as businesses across the province will be allowed to open further, outdoor visits at long-term care facilities will be allowed and outdoor gathering limits will be increased.

The limits for indoor gatherings, however, remain the same.

In-person classes will resume Wednesday at all schools outside of Halifax Regional Municipality and Sydney. And all licensed child-care centres and family daycare homes can return to 100 per cent capacity.

Retail stores can operate at 25 per cent capacity, and all 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. They must stop service by 11 p.m. and close by midnight.

There are also new rules for faith gatherings, weddings, funerals, cultural institutions, hair salons, barber shops, spas, fitness facilities, outdoor pools and organized sports.

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

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 28, 2021.

Michael MacDonald, The Canadian Press