At one minute after midnight this morning, Monday, March 21, Nova Scotia removed almost all of its COVID-19 restrictions. Yesterday, it was illegal for more than 25 people to hang out together indoors; today there is no gathering limit. Last week, people in line at the grocery store had to stand two metres apart; today there are no physical distancing rules. And the province doesn’t require anyone to wear a mask anymore—except, in a last-moment change, masks will remain mandatory in schools.
The policy shift on masking came after an advisory group from the IWK Health Centre called for masks to stay put in classrooms when kids return from March Break (today is the first day back after the break). Premier Tim Houston and chief medical officer of health Dr. Robert Strang announced the change in a Friday afternoon briefing following the release of the weekly COVID report.
“The pandemic is not over—and you can see that when you look at positive lab tests and hospitalizations in particular,” Strang said in the report. During the week of March 9-15 covered by the report, lab tests diagnosed 2,888 new COVID cases in the province—over 400 infections per day—and for hospitalizations, 41 new patients were admitted. Over the same period there were 15 additional COVID deaths, more than two Nova Scotians killed by the disease every day, bringing the provincial pandemic death toll to 232 people.
The masking-in-schools decision was made Thursday afternoon, Strang said, after he and the premier spoke to each other and then with Dr. Andrew Lynk from the department of pediatrics at the IWK.
“Listening to these respected experts, it’s clear that the best decision based on today’s information is to keep masking in school until about mid-April,” the premier said at the Friday briefing. Masking will also remain a requirement in hospitals and long-term care homes.
With these masking exceptions, all other pandemic restrictions (including gathering and capacity limits, proof of vaccination requirements and mandatory masking in public spaces) are gone today as Nova Scotia entered phase three of its reopening plan. Also, the province’s state of emergency ended yesterday at noon, almost two years since it was first enacted on Sunday, March 22, 2020.
Still, Strang is urging Nova Scotians to keep up with public safety measures. He highly recommends people wear masks when indoors in crowds, and asked that people keep their social circles tight. He added that businesses will be able to choose whether or not they will require their patrons to wear masks.
In a press release issued Friday afternoon about phase three reopening, the difference between provincial rules and provincial recommendations is clear:
“• there will be no gathering limits or capacity limits, but people should still keep their social groups small and consistent and make careful choices about the gatherings they attend
• physical distance will no longer be required between individuals and groups, although distancing is still recommended
• masks will no longer be required, but wearing one in indoor public places or crowded outdoor places is strongly recommended”.
The chief medical officer said he does not believe there’s a disconnect between his recommendations for Nova Scotians and the message that comes with the lifting of restrictions. “We have to lift restrictions. All the impacts—financial, mental health impacts—are significant. People will ultimately make their own choices based on their own level of comfort,” Strang said Friday.
Doctor Strang said he doesn’t expect the province will have to move back towards issuing restrictions unless there is a new variant that sets things off course.
“Those stronger measures are always in our toolbox, but I only see us going back to those if we had a substantive new variant,” he said. “It would almost be like starting the pandemic over again, and I even hate to say those words.”