This story was updated August 29 to include a quote from Tim Houston making clear the province must reach 75 percent fully vaccinated to enter Phase 5.
Phase 5 is scheduled to start Wednesday, September 15, Houstrang says. Monday afternoon, during their first provincial COVID briefing together, incoming premier-designate Tim Houston and chief medical officer of health Robert Strang explained that the final reopening stage means most public health COVID restrictions will be lifted inside Nova Scotia, although border protection measures will remain in effect for people coming to the province.
“For now, living with COVID-19 means leaving border policies in place through the fall while lifting most other restrictions,” says Houston in the provincial press release announcing the Phase 5 date. “The requirement to self-isolate after travel has been the main line of defence to protect Nova Scotians from COVID-19 and that won’t change for travellers who are not fully vaccinated.”
The premier-designate is so serious about the border, that New Brunswick's current no-questions-asked travel privileges are being suspended this week. At 8am Wednesday, August 25, people from New Brunswick will have to complete the Safe Check-in Form like other visitors from beyond PEI or Newfoundland and Labrador, and they will have to self-isolate for two weeks if they aren't fully vaccinated. (And there is a seven-day isolation for partially vaccinated visitors, as well as testing requirements: the details of Nova Scotia's border restrictions are at the province's travel information site.)
The September 15 date for Phase 5 depends on the province reaching 75 percent fully vaccinated; while that could happen later, Houston thinks it more likely to arrive earlier. “Doctor Strang has confidence that we can meet our 75 percent target by the middle of September or maybe even sooner. That’s why today we’re setting September 15 as the target date to move to Phase 5,” Houston says during the briefing. “This date is based on the projected timeline to hit that goal of 75 percent of the population fully vaccinated—if we hit the target sooner, we’ll work with public health to change the date accordingly. But we want to give Nova Scotians a sense of where we are and what the plan is, so that they can begin to plan themselves.”
As for what Phase 5 looks like in Nova Scotia, chief medical officer of health Robert Strang points out that COVID is still here. “Removing restrictions and mandatory measures does not mean COVID-19 is gone. It means that our vaccination rates are high enough that we can start living safely with the virus without the restrictions and measures that were needed in previous waves,” Strang says in the press release.
“Thanks to vaccination, there is much less risk of wide spread of the virus and severe illness. Even though we expect to see cases and small outbreaks in people who aren’t vaccinated, our overall vaccination coverage should limit the impact on our people, our healthcare system and our economy.”
Back to school, back to normal
Schools are reopening Tuesday, September 8. Students will have to wear masks for the first week, until Phase 5 starts, then are allowed to go maskless like most of the rest of the province. Otherwise, Nova Scotia's back to school plan also sounds like a return to pre-pandemic normal according to a separate provincial press release.
The plan includes "full in-class learning," the complete return of "music classes, band, sports, use of cafeterias, lockers and cubbies, extra-curricular activities and community use of gyms," allowing non-essential visitors into school—"although virtual meetings and visits are still encouraged"—and "parents and guardians of pre-primary and Primary students will be able to visit schools on their child’s first day."
“Teachers and students have had two difficult years," Strang says during the briefing. "This year should be easier.”
For those students and staff who aren't comfortable dropping their masks after Phase 5 begins, the province says "schools will create supportive environments for those who choose to wear a mask." Strang says requiring mask-wearing for the first week of school will help teachers and students feel comfortable keeping them on if they so choose, but "it wouldn't be justified" to keep masks in schools beyond Phase 5. This could change, however, if more cases are identified or if vaccinations don't hit the target of 75 percent of the province being fully vaccinated.
The fourth wave is coming to NS
Strang said he remains concerned about the fourth wave of COVID, which has hit much of Canada, including New Brunswick.
"We will get a fourth wave, we will get some cases and maybe clusters. How we minimize the impact of the fourth wave, the key is having high vaccination rates," Strang said.
In long-term care facilities, staff will still have to wear masks during Phase 5. Other health care facilities and businesses can set their own mask policies.
"Measures like plexiglass barriers and increased cleaning that employers have put in place to prevent COVID-19 should continue," says the province. "They are good occupational health and safety practices to mitigate the risk of many respiratory and other illnesses. Employers should also continue to support employees to stay home when they are sick."
Outgoing premier Iain Rankin was invited to join the briefing but did not attend, squandering what is likely to be the only chance Nova Scotians had to receive a COVID briefing from uberportmanteau Houstrankin. But Houstrang proved up to the task, calmly fielding questions phoned in from journalists all over the province. Houston officially becomes premier next Tuesday, August 31, when he and his cabinet will be sworn in.