Liberal MP for Louis-Hébert Joël Lightbound speaks about COVID-19 restrictions during a news conference, Tuesday, Feb. 8, 2022, in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Provinces to relax COVID-19 restrictions, say risk assessment lies with citizens

Saskatchewan and Quebec announced plans to lift COVID-19 restrictions Tuesday, saying it will increasingly be up to citizens to assess the risks they face from the virus.

Prince Edward Island also outlined plans to end most restrictions early in April, with Premier Dennis King cautioning that the loosening is not a declaration of victory. “COVID is still with us, and it will be with us,” he said.

Saskatchewan is going the furthest, as Premier Scott Moe said the province will no longer require COVID-19 vaccine passports as of Monday and will not renew its indoor mask mandate when it expires at the end of March.

Moe told reporters in Regina that the policy requiring people to show proof of vaccination or a recent negative COVID-19 test to dine at restaurants, go to bars or purchase liquor is divisive and has “run its course.”

He said the policy was warranted in the fall, when the province was facing the Delta variant of the novel coronavirus, but vaccines do not provide sufficient protection against Omicron transmission to justify it now.

“During that Delta wave, I do believe that the benefits of this policy most certainly did outweigh the costs,” Moe said. “But today, as we deal with a very different strain, the Omicron variant, the benefits of this policy no longer outweigh the costs.”

Moe said it will be up to people in the province to do their own “personal risk assessment” when deciding whether to attend events, or wear masks once the provincial mandate ends.

Dr. Saqib Shahab, Saskatchewan’s chief medical health officer, said hospitalizations in the province — which now only releases COVID-19 data once a week — are currently peaking or will peak soon.

In Quebec, which has seen some of the country’s strictest public health measures, Premier François Legault detailed a plan that would see most restrictions lifted by March 14.

Starting Saturday, there will no longer be any legal restrictions on private gatherings, and other measures will be removed gradually, including a reopening of bars on Feb. 28 and full houses allowed in the province’s largest hockey arenas as of March 14.

Legault echoed Moe in calling on people to use their judgment about what is safe.

“We’ll have to learn how live with the virus,” he told a news conference in Quebec City. “What does that mean? It means that each person will have to evaluate their own risks. ‘I’m with how many people? How many have three doses? How many are over 60?’ “

But Health Minister Christian Dubé said the province’s vaccine passport system is staying, and interim public health director Dr. Luc Boileau said indoor mask wearing will remain mandatory in public spaces until at least March 14.

In Prince Edward Island, the government will start to ease COVID-19 public health restrictions starting Feb. 17, as part of a three-step plan that will see an end to most restrictions around April 7, King said.

Saskatchewan’s Moe also called on the federal government to announce a plan to lift restrictions on federally regulated industries. Those comments came shortly after a Liberal member of Parliament said federal COVID-19 measures, such as vaccination mandates for travellers and civil servants, need to be re-evaluated and the public needs a clear road map for when restrictions will be fully lifted.

Joël Lightbound, MP for a Quebec City riding, told reporters in Ottawa that he thinks his own government’s policies are divisive and risk undermining public trust. Lightbound said governments shouldn’t “demonize” people who have legitimate concerns about COVID-19 policies.

“They’re worried that measures which ought to be exceptional and limited in time are being normalized, with no end in sight, like vaccine passports, mandates and requirements for travellers,” he said. “They’re worried because they feel they feel it is becoming harder and harder to know where public health stops and where politics begins.”

Other provinces have said they are also looking at easing their COVID-19 measures. Alberta was to hold a news conference later Tuesday, while Manitoba and Ontario have said they are prepared to loosen restrictions in the coming weeks.