B.C. health officials have once again extended the province-wide ban on social gatherings and events, citing concerns around the growing number of COVID-19 variant cases.
Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry broke the news Friday morning that the tough restrictions first imposed back in November will continue indefinitely.
"Right now, we need to stay the path," Henry said. "We need to buy time to understand how these variants of concern – whether these variants of concern – are going to affect transmission in our community."
Unlike in previous extensions of her public health order, Henry did not provide a date on which the restrictions would be reassessed.
The news was surely a disappointment to some in the province, who have spent months separated from family and friends, allowed only to drop off care packages or catch up by taking a walk outside.
But health officials had been hinting in recent days that it was too soon to dial back their strict-but-temporary measures, particularly as they have continued to identify new cases of the U.K. and South African COVID-19 variants.
The fear is that potentially faster-spreading variants will reverse the province's progress in bending its pandemic curve back down, particularly while its immunization program has been disrupted by delayed shipments from both Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna.
"We need to protect the progress we have made since the start of this year and not squander our success," said Henry.
While the restrictions were not extended to a particular date, Henry did offer a glimpse of hope that her public health order could be amended at the end of February if people continue behaving responsibly.
That could mean a return to youth sports, resumption of in-person church services, and bringing back a "safe six" bubble of close contacts, according to the provincial health officer.
"Through our shared efforts, and as long as we continue on this path, we can start planning for the return of activities at the end of this month," she said.
But health officials stressed that reaching that point will require a combined effort to limit the spread of COVID-19, which means abiding by restrictions even on holidays and special occasions.
"Whether it's the Super Bowl this Sunday, Lunar New Year, Family Day, Valentine's Day, it's an important opportunity for us to either allow the virus to spread or for us to slow it down even more," Henry said.
The current restrictions prohibit gatherings and events of any size – including everything from live theatre performances to events held outdoors – with limited exceptions for things like small weddings and funerals.
People are not allowed to host friends or family at home, even in small groups, though there is another limited exception for those who live alone.
Fitness facilities focussed on certain high-intensity group activities, including hot yoga and spin classes, have also been forced to temporarily close under the order.
The province has seen positive results since the measures were implemented in November amid an alarming surge in infections. B.C.'s coronavirus cases began falling sharply in December, though there was another spike after the holidays that delayed its progress.
As of the last update from health officials on Thursday, B.C.'s active caseload was at 4,447, down from a peak of 10,009 on Dec. 17.