Canada, U.S., other countries take tentative steps toward relaxing some COVID-19-related restrictions

The latest:

In Canada, the United States and around the world, tentative steps are being taken to ease the lockdowns put in place to slow the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Canada’s premiers have agreed to work toward a jointly drafted set of national guidelines on reopening the economy, and federal and provincial sources say they hope to have a common set of guiding principles finalized by next week.

In the U.S., three states have begun to relax their rules, despite criticism from experts that it’s too soon.

And the Mexican government said Friday it plans to reopen automotive factories in conjunction with the U.S. and Canada. 

The world is seeing a patchwork of approaches. Schools reopen in one country and stay closed in others; face masks are mandatory in some places, a recommendation elsewhere. Some countries have floated the idea of an “immunity passport” for people who have survived the disease, but the World Health Organization (WHO) has warned against it, saying the science is unsettled.

Sask. and N.B. unveil multi-phase plans

Canada’s announcement Friday of national guidelines came as Saskatchewan and New Brunswick unveiled multiphase plans to reopen.

In addition to the Saskatchewan and New Brunswick plans, the federal government has circulated a set of draft guidelines that could form the basis of the joint document. The federal guidelines were prepared largely by the Public Health Agency of Canada and include feedback from provincial medical officers.

“People want to continue to see everybody working together on this,” said a provincial source who listened to the conference call. 

WATCH | Prime minister and premiers discuss how and when to reopen:

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau holds a conference call with provincial leaders to discuss how and when Canada can begin to return to normal after shutting down during the COVID-19 pandemic. 2:00

N.B. Premier Blaine Higgs released early details of a phased reopening plan for that province Friday afternoon, and in an interview with CBC News confirmed the prime minister had asked the premiers to submit ideas to develop national guidelines with a goal of moving quickly. Also on Friday, Ontario Premier Doug Ford said that his government will offer some details early next week about its reopening plans.

The framework will provide a “gradual and measured approach” to opening up, Ford said, adding that health and safety will “always come first.”

Speaking outside Rideau Cottage in Ottawa, Trudeau pointed to the different experiences provinces are having with the coronavirus.

“Canada is a vast country and some regions have been hit harder than others during this pandemic,” he said. “We’re a federation, so we have to adapt our response to the realities and challenges of each province and territory.”

WATCH | Trudeau on N.B. premier’s concerns as province slowly reopens:

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke to reporters on Friday. 2:10

The prime minister stressed that “getting back to normal will not happen overnight” and will require co-ordination at the national level to ensure governments are working with similar principles and guidelines.

“We’re not out of the woods,” Trudeau said, stressing that people need to follow local public health instructions.

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer has called for a national plan, expressing concern about a “possible patchwork approach across the country.”

New Brunswick’s premier outlined the province’s reopening plan on Friday, saying it would begin immediately with the loosening of physical distancing restrictions to allow two-household gatherings. Post-secondary students, who require access to their campus to fulfil their course requirements, will be able to do so, but elementary, middle and high schools won’t reopen until at least September.

Higgs outlined further steps, with a plan to eventually reopen elective surgeries, child-care facilities, barbers, churches and other facilities in stages over the coming weeks, as long as cases in the province remain low.

His announcement came a day after Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe’s similar one, as he said the province had to find the “middle ground” that keeps case numbers low and people safe, while also allowing businesses to open.

Moe said Thursday that restrictions there will be gradually lifted in phases over a period of weeks. All businesses and public venues will be required to keep following physical distancing and cleanliness rules — as will customers.

WATCH | See how Saskatchewan plans to handle a phased reopening:

Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe unveiled the province’s plan to start easing COVID-19 restrictions starting in May. 2:03

According to a Johns Hopkins University database, there are now more than 2.8 million known COVID-19 cases worldwide, with more than 197,000 deaths. The U.S., where some states are also taking steps toward reopening, accounts for more than 900,000 of those cases and on Friday, passed the grim milestone of more than 50,000 deaths.

As of 9:15 a.m. on Saturday, Canada had 43,888 confirmed and presumptive cases, with 15,554 listed by provinces and territories as resolved or recovered. A CBC News tally of coronavirus-related deaths, which is based on provincial data, local public health information and CBC reporting, put the death toll at 2,390 in Canada, plus two deaths abroad.

Public health officials caution that the numbers don’t capture the full story, as they don’t include people who haven’t been tested or potential cases that are still being investigated.

Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, has urged people to behave as though there is coronavirus in their community, even if there aren’t any officially recorded cases. There are no proven treatments or cures for the novel virus. 

Read on for a look at what’s happening in Canada, the U.S. and around the world.

Here’s a look at what’s happening in the provinces and territories

Hospitalizations in British Columbia fell to 96 on Friday, though officials announced four more deaths, including a woman from Alert Bay who died after a state of emergency was declared on the remote island by local First Nation and government leaders. “One of our people has passed away,” said  ‘Namgis First Nation elected Chief Don Svanvik. “It’s very difficult. We’re a small community. Everybody knows everybody.”  Also, a second poultry plant in the province is dealing with an outbreak of COVID-19. Read more about what’s happening in B.C.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney announced Friday a new $1-billion support program for the province’s energy sector, mainly funded by the federal government’s COVID-19 Economic Response Plan. The Site Rehabilitation Program will provide grants to oilfield service contractors. Oil-based companies have been struggling in the wake of record-low crude prices, caused by a surplus in global production and a plunge in demand sparked by the pandemic.

On Thursday, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, the province’s chief medical officer of health, warned Albertans that COVID-19 “will be with us for many months to come.” Hinshaw made the announcement as the curve shown in the province’s modelling work, released earlier this month, may have left people with the impression that the virus will go away over the summer, which is not the case, she said. Read more about what’s happening in Alberta. 

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney has announced $1 billion in help for the energy sector in the province. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe outlined a five-phase reopening plan on Thursday. The first phase will begin on May 4 and will lift some restrictions on outdoor activity and allow medical practices, ranging from dentists to physiotherapists, to reopen with precautions in place. There are no dates attached to subsequent phases, which means the timeline for full resumption of places like restaurants, theatres and gyms isn’t yet clear.

A recently released public health order is restricting all “non-critical” travel into northern Saskatchewan, which has the most active cases in the province. The move came after repeated public criticism and calls for help for the area. Read more about what’s happening in Saskatchewan.

Manitoba is set to ramp up surgeries after a month of postponements due to COVID-19. The number of new coronavirus cases continues to be low enough — with only one new case announced Friday — that health officials say they can pivot some of the system’s resources back toward surgeries. “Our numbers have been looking like they’re in the right direction, and we’re at a position right now where we can start to plan on gradually loosening some of these restrictions,” Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Brent Roussin said. Read more about what’s happening in Manitoba. 

The Ontario government will release a framework early next week for how it plans to reopen the province’s economy, Premier Ford said Friday. Meanwhile, Chief Medical Officer Dr. Barbara Yaffe said that despite the province reporting its highest daily increase in cases, officials are “cautiously optimistic” that the outbreak is peaking. Yaffe also said they remain extremely concerned about outbreaks in long-term care homes, as there are 139 outbreaks in such facilities in the province. Read more about what’s happening in Ontario, including a detailed timeline of how the province has handled COVID-19 in long-term care homes.

WATCH | Niagara police launch probe into city councillor with COVID-19:

Police, labour and health officials are investigating the actions of a town councillor and businessman in Ontario’s Niagara Region who continued to work in the community while visibly ill with cold symptoms. 2:06

Quebec Premier François Legault said he would expedite plans to create more spacious and better-staffed long-term care homes in the province. He said the virus’s spread through such facilities has created “two separate worlds, one inhabited by the residents of long-term care homes and the other by the rest of societyQuebec recorded another 97 COVID-19 deaths Friday, bringing its total to 1,340 deaths. The vast majority — about 80 per cent —  were residents of long-term care institutions and other kinds of seniors’ homes. Read more about what’s happening in Quebec.

The government of New Brunswick announced plans to reopen the province, allowing partial loosening of physical distancing measures. “These are first steps,” Premier Higgs said, imploring people to continue to follow public health guidelines to stop the spread of COVID-19. Large gatherings, such as festivals and concerts, are still banned. Read more about what’s happening in N.B. 

Nova Scotia reported 23 new COVID-19 cases on Friday, bringing the provincial total to 850, with 16 deaths. At a Friday press briefing, Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Robert Strang said that despite other provinces announcing plans to reopen, Nova Scotia is “not out of the woods yet.” Premier Stephen McNeil said the province has not yet reached the peak. Read more about what’s happening in N.S.

Prince Edward Island reported no new cases of COVID-19 on Friday for the ninth straight day. Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Heather Morrison said the province received 98 more negative test results as of Thursday, while 24 of the Island’s 26 COVID-19 cases are considered recovered. Read more about what’s happening on P.E.I, including the latest from the premier on what to expect for the summer tourism season.

Provincial health department workers stop traffic that has crossed the Confederation Bridge in Borden-Carleton, P.E.I., on March 22. Anyone arriving on Prince Edward Island from another province is told to self-isolate for 14 days. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

Newfoundland and Labrador has gone a full week without any new coronavirus cases. Dr. Janice Fitzgerald, the province’s chief medical officer, on Friday praised people for the “dedication” they have shown and urged everyone to keep following public health rules. Read more about what’s happening in N.L.

The Northwest Territories government is revamping its rent assistance program to help during COVID-19. Read more about what’s happening across the North.

Here’s a look at what’s happening in the U.S.

Three U.S. states have begun loosening lockdown orders on their pandemic-wounded businesses, even as the confirmed U.S. death toll from COVID-19 soared past 50,000 and despite warnings from health experts that such steps may be coming too early.

Republican governors in Georgia and Oklahoma allowed salons, spas and barbershops to reopen, while Alaska opened the way for restaurants to resume dine-in service and retail shops and other businesses to open their doors, all with limitations. Some Alaska municipalities chose to maintain stricter rules.

Though limited in scope and subject to social-distancing restrictions, the reopenings marked a symbolic milestone in the debate over lockdown orders.

During a White House news briefing Friday, President Donald Trump spoke optimistically of the economy but also asked people to continue physical distancing and using face coverings. The same day, Trump signed a $484 billion US bill to aid employers and hospitals under stress from the pandemic. Over the past five weeks, roughly 26 million people have filed for jobless aid, or about one in six U.S. workers.

Trump also said his widely criticized comments suggesting people can ingest or inject disinfectant to fight COVID-19 was an attempt at sarcasm.

WATCH | Trump claims question about injecting disinfectant was sarcastic:

After U.S. President Donald Trump’s comments about injecting disinfectant to treat COVID-19, experts and manufacturers warn people not to attempt it. 1:58

Amy Pembrook and her husband, Mike, reopened their hair salon in the northwest Oklahoma town of Fairview after it had been shuttered for about a month.

“We’re super excited about going back, but we have caught a little flak from people who say it’s too early,” Amy Pembrook said. “We just said we can live in fear for a long time or we can trust that everything is going to be OK.”

Meanwhile, testing continues to lag across the U.S. To date, according to data compiled by the COVID Tracking Project, just under 4.7 million people have been tested in the country of 330 million. Researchers at Harvard University have estimated a minimum of 500,000 daily tests are needed, and possibly much more, in order to safely reopen the economy.

In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis said his administration plans to let pharmacists administer virus tests to reach a broader range of people, including those with no symptoms who believe they may have been exposed.

In Michigan, Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer lengthened her stay-at-home order through May 15, while lifting restrictions so some businesses can reopen and the public can participate in outdoor activities, such as golf and motorized boating. Michigan has nearly 3,000 deaths related to COVID-19, behind only New York and New Jersey.

New York reported its lowest number of daily COVID-19 deaths in weeks on Friday. The state recorded 422 deaths as of the day before — the fewest since March 31, when it recorded 391 deaths. More than 16,000 people have died in the state from the outbreak.

Here’s a look at what’s happening around the world

WHO warned Saturday that governments should not issue “immunity passports” or “risk-free certificates” to people who have been infected as their accuracy could not be guaranteed.

In a scientific brief, the organization said there was currently “no evidence” that people who have recovered from COVID-19 and have antibodies are protected from a second coronavirus infection.
The practice could actually increase the risks of continued spread because people who have recovered may ignore advice about taking standard precautions against the virus, it said.

WATCH | WHO announces ‘landmark’ initiative to defeat COVID-19:

The World Health Organization drew together powerful actors to push for the “speed and scale”  needed to combat the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. 1:27

The European Union is planning a major pledging conference early next month to help fill WHO’s funding gaps, and it expects Canada to play a key role.

Brice de Schietere, the EU’s acting ambassador to Canada, says the event was being planned before Trump announced last week he would pause WHO funding because of concerns that it mismanaged the early outbreak of the coronavirus.

De Schietere told The Canadian Press that no one wants to politicize the May 4 event but the effort to find a vaccine and fund the research needed to end the global pandemic means raising money to help the UN agency is more important than ever. He said the Canada-EU trade deal will play a key role in helping the post-pandemic economic recovery, as well as keeping essential medical supply chains open.

De Schietere steered clear of mentioning Trump directly, but he emphasized that Canada is the EU’s closest partner in the world right now, and that their transatlantic alliance is focused on bolstering the multilateral trade, health and political organizations to battle the pandemic.

On Thursday, European leaders revised their long-term budget to pay for the continent’s massive post-pandemic recovery, which could cost upwards of $1.5 trillion Cdn, making it the most ambitious financial assistance package since the 1948 Marshall Plan to rebuild the continent after the Second World War.

Mexico‘s government said Friday it plans to reopen automotive factories in conjunction with the U.S. and Canada.

The Foreign Relations Department said in a statement that the details of the plan would be released in the coming days. The department said health safeguards would be in place to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, which caused Mexico to order the closure of non-essential plants several weeks ago.

The announcement came three days after the U.S. government launched a campaign to get Mexico to reopen plants, suggesting the supply chain of the North American free trade zone could be permanently affected if they didn’t resume production.

A woman gestures to dogs behind a fence at San Gregorio animal shelter in Mexico City on Friday. (Henry Romero/Reuters)

In Brazil, cases of COVID-19 are overwhelming hospitals, morgues and cemeteries as Latin America’s largest nation veers closer to becoming one of the world’s pandemic hot spots. 

Medical officials in Rio de Janeiro and at least four other major cities have warned that their hospital systems are on the verge of collapse or already too overwhelmed to take any more patients. 

Health experts expect the number of infections in the country of 211 million people will be much higher than what has been reported — 53,000 cases — because of insufficient, delayed testing. 

Meanwhile, President Jair Bolsonaro has shown no sign of wavering from his insistence that COVID-19 is a relatively minor disease and that broad physical-distancing measures are not needed to stop it. He has said only Brazilians at high risk should be isolated.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who has consistently played down the coronavirus, holds a packed shoulder-to-shoulder news conference Friday in Brasilia. (Andressa Anholete/Getty Images)

India‘s government is blaming an Islamic missionary meeting for a surge in COVID-19 cases, triggering a wave of violence, business boycotts and hate speech toward Muslims that experts warn could worsen the pandemic in the world’s second-most populous country.

The stigma faced by India’s Muslims, poorer and with less access to health care than other groups, is making health workers’ battle against the virus even tougher, according to veterans of other epidemics. India has about 24,500 confirmed cases — about one in five of which have been linked to the missionary meeting — and 775 deaths, and the outbreak may not peak until June.

A Muslim boy wearing a protective face mask rides in a rickshaw on the eve of the holy fasting month of Ramadan, during a nationwide lockdown to slow the spread of COVID-19 in the old quarters of Delhi, India, on Friday. (Adnan Abidi/Reuters)

Britain could hit the grim milestone of 20,000 COVID-19 deaths later on Saturday, when the daily count is added to the current toll of 19,506 people who tested positive and died in hospital.

As the death toll rises, the government is facing growing criticism over its response to the pandemic. It was slower to impose a lockdown than European peers and is struggling to raise its testing capacity.

Back in mid-March the government’s chief scientific adviser said that keeping the death toll below 20,000 would be a “good outcome.”

A man wearing a face mask crosses Millennium Bridge in London on Saturday. (Simon Dawson/Reuters)

In Australia, traditional crowds at dawn services for the Anzac Day memorial holiday were replaced Saturday with candlelit vigils in driveways and neighbours gathering to listen to buglers play The Last Post.

Restrictions on crowds and physical distancing due to the coronavirus meant that the usual packed dawn services in cities and towns across the country were not held. The holiday, also celebrated in New Zealand, marks the anniversary of New Zealand and Australian soldiers, known as Anzacs, landing on the Gallipoli Peninsula in 1915.

WATCH | New Zealand goes beyond flattening the curve:

New Zealand’s sweeping lockdown to prevent the spread of COVID-19 has allowed the country to go beyond flattening the curve; it’s nearly eradicated the virus. 2:04

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