As Saskatchewan retailers got back to work on Tuesday, Premier Scott Moe hinted that the next phase in his reopening plan is likely to start in June.
Moe told reporters his government will “start to rough out a target date” for Phase 3 of the plan, which would allow restaurants, bars and gyms to reopen. It would also increase the size of gatherings and limits on child care.
Saskatchewan’s chief medical health officer, Dr. Saqib Shahab, said it’s “always good to have two to three weeks” between phases, in order to assess the results of the widespread reopening that began on Tuesday.
Moe said such a delay, of at least two weeks, “would allow us some time to review some of the results, some of the testing results that are occurring with this Phase 2 opening.” He confirmed that means “sometime in June” is a likely timeline.
According to Moe, the response to increased COVID-19 infections would look similar to what happened in Lloydminister and northwestern Saskatchewan, where clusters or outbreaks prompted delays in Phases 1 and 2 of the plan.
“Where there are the potential for localized outbreaks, whether they be in a facility or a community, you may see us restrict or delay some of the reopening in that particular area,” he said.
“This has worked. It worked in Lloydminister.”
Jim Bence, president and CEO of the Saskatchewan Hotel and Hospitality Association, was hoping to hear a “hard date” for when Phase 3 will come. He said his restaurant members need ample notice to retool their operations, including renovations, retraining and new protocols to prevent infections.
“The feedback I’m getting from members is very much wanting to know when that date will be so we can really get ahead of the curve,” he said.
“We just want to make sure that we’ve got enough time that we can do this in a very methodical way,” Bence added. “The more lead time the better.”
According to Bence, preparations could cost tens of thousands of dollars. Further, restaurants had to get rid of their stock when they shut down, and want to know when they can start repurchasing some of those goods.
The number of active cases of COVID-19 in Saskatchewan fell again on Tuesday, as the province announced seven new cases and 15 more recoveries. There have been 599 cases province-wide over the course of the pandemic, though only 123 of them are considered active. The far north remains the most affected region, with 107 active cases.
But Moe noted that active cases in that region have decreased substantially over recent days. His government announced Tuesday that it is ending travel restrictions in much of the Northern Saskatchewan Administration District, as the risk of transmission remains “regionalized” in the northwest.
The order, first announced on April 24, banned non-critical travel into the north. It was later extend to limit travel between northern communities. As of Tuesday, it only applies to northwestern communities like La Loche, Beauval, Buffalo Narrows, Ile-a-la-Crosse and Pinehouse, as well as several neighbouring First Nations.
Moe said that decision followed consultations with northern leaders. But La Ronge Mayor Ron Woytowich was taken off guard by the announcement, saying he had not been informed prior to being contacted by the Leader-Post. He said he understands that the government is dealing with a significant workload, however.
He had mixed feelings about the prospect of free movement into his community.
“From an economic standpoint, I would say that it’s a good thing. From a health standpoint, I would be a little scared,” said Woytowich.
“I don’t know what will happen,” he added. “Are people going to suddenly want to escape the city and come up north to cabins?”
Moe said he suspects that many people will head north, while some from the north will head south. He said that his minister of government relations has stayed in weekly touch with northern mayors.
“It’s always our goal to remove restrictions, not add them, so we can operate as closely to what will be a new normal as possible,” said Moe.