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Schools, hair salons may re-open as GNWT announces ease on restrictions

Books and board games for free on Matonabee St. Blair McBride/NNSL photo
Books and board games for free on Matonabee St. Blair McBride/NNSL photo

Some Covid-related restrictions could be lifted as soon as Sunday in the NWT.

That's if there's no evidence of community spread of the virus between now and then, according to the GNWT's new plan to restart the territory's economy and return everyday life to normal.

Schools and some businesses and organizations will be permitted to open and personal gatherings could expand, though protocols on social distancing and other restrictions will still apply, according to the document, titled Emerging Wisely.

Click here to read it.

The easing of restrictions is part of the first phase of recovery, starting 28 days or two incubation periods since the last confirmed case of Covid-19 in the territory was deemed recovered.

The GNWT's Emerging Wisely plan details the phases for returning to normal life during the Covid-19 pandemic. screengrab image

The territory is currently in the containment phase, the highest phase of public health restrictions.

Current safety initiatives such as border closures, measures on workers entering the NWT and expanded testing will be in place until at least Sunday, the plan said.

However, the territory's top doctor suggested in a press conference on Tuesday that the first phase could begin on Friday.

"I would love to have Phase One start as early as Friday and that's the path (on which) we’re headed. We do need legal amendment of the order, which we’re in the process of doing. We could be ready to open as early as Friday, May 15," said chief public health officer Kami Kandola.

The plan cautions that restrictive measures could be re-imposed if there's a surge of Covid cases and that the public should be prepared for that scenario.

Moving back to previous phases could be triggered by breaking of health precaution rules, community spread or group outbreaks.

Phase one

Elementary, middle and high schools will be able to re-open, subject to class size limits, non-medical mask use for children over the age of two, physical distancing, enhanced hand-washing and infection controls. Communal or self-serve food won't be permitted.

Metro Huculak, superintendent of Yellowknife Education District No. 1, said he was unaware of the plan and needed time to think about it when reached for comment Tuesday.

Kandola explained that plans for reopening businesses and schools must first be submitted to her for vetting and if certain safety measures are in place she would approve the openings.

"We’re now exiting flu season. If there’s any favourable time to reopen schools this is it," she said.

Emerging Wisely states that children in schools - and people in other businesses and organizations able to open in Phase One - should be equipped with masks.

Chief public health officer Kami Kandola speaks during the press conference on Tuesday. screengrab image

Premier Caroline Cochrane addressed the availability of masks in the press conference with Dr. Kandola, and said the GNWT is exploring options to provide more masks for residents.

"We’re bringing forward programs through the Department of Industry, Tourism and Investment (ITI). There’s $1,000 now for people wanting to manufacture them. We’re looking at a fund through ITI on how we can provide the supplies for people to make the homemade masks. I really promote that." 

The premier added that the government is having conversations with suppliers of medical-quality personal protective equipment to procure more items. 

Among businesses, some personal service establishments such as tattoo parlours, hair salons and barber and aesthetic shops can open. Gyms that conduct personal training and outdoor sessions can resume operations, along with bottle depots and some museums and art galleries.

Some outdoor gatherings will be permitted, including farmers' markets, day-use areas of parks and kitchen shelters, playgrounds, plays and theatres, libraries, recreational facilities, summer camps and boat launches. Outdoor field sports like soccer, ultimate Frisbee and cricket can resume.

Under the plan, a household can have up to five people visiting and up to 10 people can be inside at one time.

Outdoor gatherings can include up to 25 people, as long as the two-metre physical distancing measure is followed, appropriate hand-washing and sanitizing is occurring and food and drinks aren't shared.

In response to a question on border restrictions and if significant others can visit their partners in the NWT, Kandola said she recommends that "people in cross-border relationships visit (their significant others) outside of the territory and they can self-isolate when they return."

"If we introduce more travel-related risk then we might have to (review) these relaxed public health measures. It's a fine line. I wish we wouldn't need border restrictions and that Canada was risk-free. But at this point we’re opening up so much freedom in the NWT based on the ability to restrict risk."

MLAs respond

Commenting on plans to lift restrictions, Caitlin Cleveland, MLA for Kam Lake, said following the chief public health officer's orders requires clear communication from the GNWT and the ability for people to provide for their families.

"Knowing what the future looks like is important to Northerners, and this includes understanding what the future looks like through Dr. Kandola’s plan to keep Northerners safe while working together to get people back to work, celebrating summer safely and bringing people back together safely," said Cleveland.

Rylund Johnson, MLA for Yellowknife North, said he's supportive of the relaxed restrictions.

"I believe we have struck an appropriate balance. We have one of the most detailed plans of any jurisdiction. We have all our cases recovered and we are number one in testing," he said. "We should continue to heavily monitor the borders while allowing our citizens and business to slowly and cautiously open up a little."

Phase two

The second phase of Emerging Wisely could start in mid-to-late-June, provided there is "limited or no community spread" of the virus and if there are only imported cases. Strong contact tracing practices would be ongoing and businesses and gathering places must be able to maintain social distancing.

At that time, government offices could reopen to the public (including Indigenous governments and organizations), limited to 50 staff and clients at one time.

Outdoor gatherings of up to 50 people will be allowed in this phase, along with indoor gatherings and sports of less than 25 people. Gymnastics classes pose a higher risk and won't be permitted to resume until the third phase.

Outdoor tourism operators can go back to work if they accommodate fewer than 50 people and fewer than 25 inside vehicles.

Cinemas and theatres can open with reduced seating, with a risk assessment from the Workers' Safety and Compensation Commission (WSCC) to determine the details of what measures are necessary to operate safely.

Dine-in restaurants, including ones with bars, can operate at limited capacity, subject to WSCC risk assessment. However, bars won't be able to open until the third phase.

Fitness centre classes can restart and client restrictions on personal service establishments can be relaxed to some degree.

Public events such as community feasts and barbecues, outdoor bingo and small concerts can happen if there are fewer than 50 people.

Campground limitations can be eased and outdoor common areas can have up to 50 people.

Phase three

Reaching the third phase of recovery requires that a second surge of coronavirus infections in Canada in the United States has come and gone, and that the NWT has a rapid-testing strategy.

In addition, all phase two steps must be completed, new cases of Covid must be falling over time and the epidemiological curves flattened.

The Emerging Wisely plan gives a general timeframe for when that might happen, stating that "it is forecast that the second wave could come between August and October 2020."

In the third phase, personal outdoor gatherings would have no limits, additional businesses such as bars will be able to open, pools can open and gymnastics classes and choirs can resume.

Colleges, adult classes and trade schools can also open.

Final measures lifted

All restrictions can finally be lifted and pre-Covid life can return to normal when a successful vaccination program is rolled out for seniors, people with compromised immune systems and those who already have long-term illnesses.

"Most experts believe it will take between 12-18 months to develop a vaccine for Covid-19 – even while research and testing advances at breakneck speed," the plan says. 

The last aspects of daily life that can resume in the final phase include such indoor activities as funerals, faith-based gatherings, bingos, community feasts, garage sales, trade shows; and such sports as broomball, hockey, lacrosse and curling. 

Indoor private gatherings with no limits on the number of people can proceed, and nightclubs can open in the final phase. 

The new public advisory comes as cases of Covid-19 across Canada exceed the levels of the first wave, said chief public health officer Dr. Kami Kandola on Wednesday. GNWT image