If the Northwest Territories remains free of Covid-19 until Friday, restrictions will start easing soon after: beginning with more visits from friends.
The NWT set out its pandemic recovery plan on Tuesday. The first phase will allow up to five people to visit your house – to a maximum of 10 people in the home at once.
Hair salons, museums, and bottle depots will be able to reopen.
Schools will be told they can reopen with restrictions like staggering the day so smaller numbers of students are on campus at a time. However, college and adult education must wait until much later.
Reopening will be a decision for individual school districts to make. Many had expected to keep buildings closed until the fall.
The NWT has no confirmed, active Covid-19 cases right now. There have been five in total, and all five patients had recovered by mid-April.
That makes Friday, May 15, a critical day in the NWT’s new plan to lift restrictions – dubbed Emerging Wisely.
May 15 represents 28 days, or two Covid-19 incubation periods, since the territory last had an active case.
If there are no new cases of Covid-19 by then, Friday marks the point at which the chief public health officer – Dr Kami Kandola – will put the wheels in motion to start lifting some restrictions.
That doesn’t mean anything will necessarily change on Friday itself. Any easing of measures may take some time. But Dr Kandola said that was her ambition.
“I would love to have phase one start on Friday,” she said in a news conference on Tuesday. “We could, in all essence, be ready to open as early as Friday.”
Diane Thom, the health minister, said the first phase could start “in the next week or so” if things continue as they are.
The NWT’s recovery plan in four bullet points:
• Phase 1: Visit friends (in limited numbers), schools may reopen, hair salons, 25 people outdoors, farmers’ markets and golf are OK. Lots of distancing measures for things that reopen. Mid-to-late May.
• Phase 2: Dine-in restaurants, movie theatres, indoor sports, easier to camp, fitness classes. Still distancing. Mid-to-late June.
• Phase 3: College and adult education, choirs, gymnastics, pools, remaining businesses. Still distancing. Not till second wave has passed through Canada.
• Back to normal: Only when there’s a vaccine or treatment, likely 2021 at the earliest. Border restrictions in place for foreseeable future. NWT will move back through the phases if Covid-19 gets worse.
Phase one will also allow some mass gatherings – like farmers’ markets, park day-use areas, golf courses, libraries, boat launches, and playgrounds – to reopen with some restrictions in place.
Private outdoor gatherings of up to 25 people will be allowed, an increase from 10 at present.
However, the NWT government warned residents: “Nothing is returning to ‘normal’ until there is an effective vaccine. Everyone will still need to follow rules as restrictions are eased.”
When the green light is given for visiting friends, the territory said you should “keep your friendship circle as small as possible and still keep physical distance as much as you can.”
All of the phase one changes must be accompanied by restrictions that keep distancing in place and try to prevent Covid-19’s spread. Hair salons, for example, can’t just go straight back to their pre-pandemic norm – they’ll have to have measures in place to adjust.
What’s staying the same?
The NWT’s pandemic border controls will not change for the foreseeable future.
The territorial government says keeping the border secure is key to the whole Emerging Wisely plan, as are strict measures related to self-isolation for anyone entering the NWT.
There is no planned change to the list of people currently allowed into the territory: residents, essential workers, and a few specialized exemptions like mine workers only.
That wipes out tourism this summer except NWT residents making trips within the territory. You can leave the NWT, but you’ll need to self-isolate for two weeks whenever you come back.
“There is still ongoing risk of travel importation,” said Kandola.
“Come fall, we’re going to start to see an increase in respiratory disease and people going indoors. We may see a lower circulation over the summer but, as soon as people start going indoors, it’s going to pick up.
“We just don’t know the magnitude or intensity of that second wave in the southern provinces.”
What happens after phase one?
The Emerging Wisely plan makes clear that the territorial government is expecting at least a limited increase in the number of Covid-19 cases once phase one begins.
As long as the territory stays on top of that – by keeping community spread to a minimum and with strong contact tracing to quickly stop the spread of any new cases – the NWT government states phase two can begin in mid-to-late June.
The second phase will reintroduce indoor sports and day programming while allowing dine-in restaurants and movie theatres to reopen as long as they keep distancing measures in place.
Restrictions related to campgrounds will ease up, government offices can reopen to the public, and organized outdoor activities will be allowed. Up to 50 people can gather outdoors at once. Fitness classes can resume.
Tourism businesses gain more flexibility to resume, with whatever NWT-based clientele they can find, in phase two. Non-essential GNWT staff can expect to head back to work in this phase.
A deserted playground at Yellowknife’s NJ Macpherson School in late April 2020. Schools could choose to return during phase one of recovery, but only with many distancing measures in place. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio
The limit of five friends over to visit at once, with a limit of 10 people in the house, will stay in place throughout all phases until a vaccine or treatment is available. (If more than 10 people already live in your house, you won’t be allowed visitors – but you can go to others’ homes.)
In other words, that means no house parties for a long time.
Phase three will only kick in after the expected second wave of Covid-19 has been and gone in southern Canada and the United States. That’s forecast to happen this fall, but is something of a moving target with many variables.
Once that happens, the third phase will remove all participation limits on outdoor gatherings although distancing measures are expected to remain.
Any businesses still shuttered will be allowed to reopen in the third phase, and gymnastics clubs, choirs, and band classes – all considered special cases – will at last be allowed to resume gathering.
Colleges, adult classes, and trade schools can only reopen in phase three. Pools may open, too.
The final step – doing away with all restrictions and going “back to normal” – will only happen once there’s a vaccine or an effective treatment and the NWT population has access to it. Experts think that won’t happen until 2021 at least.
What if Covid-19 gets worse in the NWT?
The plan works in both directions. If the pandemic gets worse in the North, the territory can move back through the steps.
The territory says moving back to an earlier phase would happen if there is “widespread rule-breaking which leads to community spread,” if community spread cannot be traced to a source, or if there is a cluster outbreak where Covid-19 is likely to spread quickly.
“NWT residents can expect to move back to earlier phases in order to help contain the spread,” the territorial government said. So steel yourself for that prospect.
However, the NWT government thinks it’s unlikely that the territory will go all the way back to its current state – the virtual lockdown of the past two months, referred to as “aggressive containment.”
“This is the highest level of public health restrictions envisioned for the territory,” states a briefing document. “Once measures begin to be eased, it is our intent not to return to this level of restriction unless absolutely necessary.”
The NWT government does, however, set out some scenarios under which a return to aggressive containment might happen.
The same briefing document suggests it would occur if there is a “catastrophic failure in our travel restrictions,” if contact tracing is overwhelmed by the number of cases, or if the health system breaks down under the strain of Covid-19.
“The GNWT will do everything in its power to avoid these scenarios,” the document states.
The territorial government says it might temporarily restrict travel to or from certain communities to localize any Covid-19 outbreak and “maintain freedoms” in other parts of the territory. Those communities would get prioritized testing.
How do I pick five friends?
The plan doesn’t say you absolutely have to pick five friends and stick with them – it’s more that the limit is five visitors to the house at any one time.
However, the territorial government says it’s a good idea to select a “fave five,” in its words, to minimize the number of different people you’re in contact with.
Alternatively, the territory suggests your family could pair up with another family and just spend time at each other’s houses.
If you’re a group of individuals sharing a house, the NWT recommends you each pick one person to invite over.
“It’s also strongly recommended that you keep physical distance of two metres in your house as much as you can to protect each other,” the territorial government advised.
“If you’re having someone over who’s older, has a weaker immune system, or has an illness already, we strongly recommend your house doesn’t have anyone else over while they are.”
Update: May 12, 2020 – 15:15 MT. The GNWT initially said Sunday, May 17, would be the date at which it assessed whether phase one could be entered. The territory has since updated that to Friday, May 15. Our report has been updated accordingly.