VICTORIA -- British Columbians can expect a gradual release from the restrictions that have interrupted daily life – school, work, shopping, appointments and social gatherings – since the outbreak of the novel coronavirus pandemic, starting this month.

The provincial government revealed Wednesday its phased approach toward doubling the amount of allowable social and economic contacts – approximately 60 per cent of normal pre-coronavirus levels – after the first wave of COVID-19.

"By the [May] long weekend is the time that we will be able to go out and hug our family," said provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry on Wednesday.

Beginning in mid-May, the province will allow medical and personal services appointments to be rescheduled under enhanced screening protocols. These appointments include things like family doctor visits, elective surgeries, dentist appointments, hair and nail treatments, counselling, massages, chiropractic appointments and speech therapy.

It also includes reopening much of the retail, recreation, restaurant, and employment sectors, with sufficient distancing measures in place. Provincial parks will reopen to daytime visits only and museums will also be allowed to reopen.

If the transmission of COVID-19 remains low through May, the province plans to reopen broad parts of the hotel and resort industry starting in June. These reopenings would include the return to overnight camping in provincial parks and the reopening of movie theatres and symphony performances.

The film and television industry can also return to domestic productions in June or July if transmission remains sufficiently low.

"Today we take our first steps," Premier John Horgan announced Wednesday. "There's much more to do, but the hard work starts with every step."

Provincial health officials stressed that all of these reopenings are contingent on a series of strict public-health protocols being followed.

Social and family interactions

Effective next weekend, health officials are encouraging British Columbians to engage in small gatherings with friends and family, limiting gatherings to between two and six people.

Outdoor gatherings are recommended to limit the likelihood of spreading the virus and physical distancing is still encouraged. Socializing in-person remains strictly prohibited for anyone with symptoms of cold, flu or COVID-19.

"We still need to be mindful when we're interacting with each other, especially with vulnerable people, that we keep our social circles tight," Horgan said.

Schools and child care

Child-care services are encouraged to reopen immediately with protective protocols in place, including daily screening of all staff and children for symptoms of cold, flu and COVID-19.

Regular school classes are expected to return in September. Anyone with cold or flu symptoms must still remain home, especially moving into the fall and winter months. The province recommends daily screening of all staff and students for COVID-19 symptoms.

Schools are asked to plan over the summer for increased online learning, especially for high school students. Schools are also asked to mandate early arrival and 14-day self-isolation for all international students.

Sports and recreation

All recreational sports organizations are asked to perform symptom screening for participants.

Organizations are encouraged to host low-contact, outdoor sports rather than high-touch activities. The province says it's exploring whether high-contact sports should reopen at all until the pandemic is completely over.

"With hockey and other sports, whether they're played in beer leagues or youth minor sports associations, we're going to be working on that into the fall," the premier said.

People in high-risk categories, such as those over 50 years old or with compromised immune systems, should not participate in organized sports, officials warned.

Workplaces and offices

Offices and workplaces should minimize social interactions in congregating areas like kitchens and lunch rooms.

Managers are asked to encourage employees to work from home as much as possible. Officials are also asking employers to reduce employee interactions by staggering or reducing work hours and forgoing in-person meetings.

Anyone who has cold, flu or COVID-19 symptoms must stay home. Workplaces that require interactions with outside customers are asked to minimize customer waiting areas and wait times, and to use Plexiglas shields between customers and staff. 

Long-term challenges

Health officials said Wednesday that reopening mass-gathering spaces and events for more than 50 people will prove nearly impossible in the months ahead without a COVID-19 vaccine.

Spaces like nightclubs, casinos, spectator sports venues, concert halls, convention centres and large bars can expect to remain closed in the long term.

As for professional sporting events, the premier said he has written to the head of the National Hockey League and to the NHL Players' Association, offering British Columbia as a place to host NHL games for broadcast, without a live audience present. 

The province says night-life industry groups will be required to submit operating plans to public health officials and WorkSafeBC for approval. Large international tourism destinations will also be closed for the foreseeable future. 

"We will look at reopening the borders in the months ahead," Horgan said, adding that non-essential travel within B.C. should be postponed until later this summer.