B.C. won't relax more COVID-19 restrictions early regardless of vaccine progress, officials say

British Columbia has already met the vaccination target for the third step of the government's COVID-19 restart plan, but that doesn't mean officials will be relaxing any more restrictions ahead of schedule.

B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix noted the vaccination rate is only one of the metrics the province will be monitoring while determining when to advance to the second, third and fourth steps of its plan.

Others include daily COVID-19 case numbers and hospitalizations related to the disease.

"We have to continue to see cases decline," Dix said Wednesday. "We're doing well and things are improving, but there's still 80 people in critical care related to COVID-19."

The government shared the details of its restart plan last week while launching Step 1, which allowed for dining indoors at restaurants, hosting a few guests at home and travelling recreationally within the province's designated travel zones.

Officials also laid out three tentative dates for the remaining steps: June 15, July 1 and Sept. 7.

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry described those as "the earliest" dates that British Columbians could see more restrictions lifted, and Dix said that remains the case, despite the progress of the government's immunization program.

As of Wednesday, just over 71 per cent of B.C. adults have received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine. The government set targets of 65 per cent for Step 2 and 70 per cent for Step 3 of its plan, along with other criteria.

The public can help see those targets met by continuing to follow public health guidance and the restrictions that remain in place, the health minister added.

"This is not the time to take risks, this is a time to continue to drive down transmission," Dix said.

He also encouraged anyone who hasn't yet registered for a vaccine to do so, because "65 per cent is a minimum but it isn't a maximum."

A group of independent researchers has called on the government to proceed with its reopening plans cautiously, noting that the faster-spreading B.1.617 variant could threaten the province's progress. The B.C. COVID-19 Modelling Group stressed that widespread vaccination is the best defence against new and emerging variants. 

B.C.'s second step is expected to involve reopening movie theatres, allowing recreational travel across the province, resuming indoor team sports and high-intensity fitness classes, and extending liquor hours in bars and restaurants.

The third tentatively includes a "return to usual for indoor or outdoor personal gatherings" and increased capacity for organized gatherings that would allow for fairs and festivals. Bingo halls, nightclubs and casinos could reopen with limited capacity, and the government's mask mandate could be lifted in favour of a mask recommendation.

The last step estimated to begin in early September includes a return to large gatherings such as rock concerts, as well as the resumption of pre-pandemic social contacts, according to the province's plans.