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'Sense of relief' as provinces begin easing COVID-19 lockdown restrictions


Quebecers were shopping for furniture, Winnipeggers were sipping beers on patios and a Regina physiotherapist was treating aches and pains that built up during weeks of isolation.  

Some provinces began easing their COVID-19 lockdowns on Monday, but top health officials cautioned many of the changes Canadians have made to their daily lives to slow the spread of the illness are here for the long haul.

"It's not over," said federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu.

"It is a cautious reopening in certain provinces and certain sectors, but ... the new normal will have to include new ways of living, new ways of working that will protect us in this unique and difficult time."

Canada has confirmed more than 60,600 cases of the illness, including more than 3,800 deaths. Nearly 26,000 of the overall cases are considered resolved.

Quebec, which accounts for more than half of Canada's tally, started reopening retail stores outside Montreal on Monday.

But it is delaying the restart in the Montreal area by a week, until May 18, because there are still too many COVID-19 patients in city hospitals.

Jean-Francois Riel opened his Meubles et Davantage furniture store in Farnham, Que., south of Montreal, for the first time since mid-March.

"It was a little bit hectic today," said Riel, who added that he greeted about 50 per cent more customers than on a typical weekday before the shutdown.

Riel said his store's 25,000-square-foot space can ensure physical distancing.

The store now has one-way aisles and hand-sanitizer stations. Riel was expecting a shipment of protective visors for his employees before the end of Monday.

At Club Tissus, a fabric store in Quebec City, salesperson Chleo Tremblay, said a line of customers stretched nearly a kilometre outside the entrance. She said most customers were seeking material to make their own masks.

The store only allowed 20 people in at a time, and services that require employees to get close to customers, such as measuring, were not offered. Cashiers worked from behind Plexiglas.  

Ontario was allowing a few mostly seasonal businesses to reopen, including garden centres with curbside pickups, lawn care and landscaping companies, and automatic car washes.

In Alberta, the Cargill beef-processing plant south of Calgary resumed after it was shut down for two weeks because of an extensive COVID-19 outbreak. Nearly half the plant's 2,000 workers have tested positive for the novel coronavirus.

UFCW Local 401, arguing conditions are unsafe for workers, is seeking a stop-work order. Hearings before the Labour Relations Board were continuing Monday.

Manitoba's museums, libraries and retail businesses — including restaurant patios — were allowed to reopen, although at half capacity.

Kathy and Dennis Teetaert were the first customers to sit down for a cold beer on the King's Head Pub patio in downtown Winnipeg under a grey sky.

"I think it's time to start supporting our restaurants and, besides that, I'm tired of cooking,” Kathy Teetaert said.

"I'm just hoping that people will be compliant and follow the rules so that we don't have to take that step back again."

Pub tables were at least two metres apart. Staff were wearing masks and gloves and there was online ordering.

"We are very excited," said pub owner Chris Graves. "It's been a really tough six weeks for us."

While museums were allowed to reopen in Manitoba, many remained closed as they tracked down supplies and created safety plans.

Non-essential medical activities were allowed to resumed across the Prairies.

Regina physiotherapist Alison Matsyk was booked solid for a half-day. She said she felt safe opening because the clinic was able to secure the required personal protective equipment.

"You can already tell that there's a sense of relief from people being able to access it again," she said.

"It brings a little more of that feeling of normal coming back."

In the Maritimes, where COVID-19 caseloads have been trending downward, some provinces began relaxing restrictions over the last week, mostly in health services and outdoor recreation. 

Newfoundland and Labrador plans to loosen some of its public health and recreation restrictions next Monday. 

British Columbia Premier John Horgan has said details will be released this week on his province's reopening plan.

Canada's public health chief, Dr. Theresa Tam, said no matter where they are, all Canadians will need to reconcile living with COVID-19.

That means continued physical distancing, frequent hand-washing and covering coughs with elbows.

"And, although we'll be getting out of our homes more and more, it will be vitally important that at the slightest sign of symptoms, we stay home to save lives. Working while sick can no longer be a thing."

Tam acknowledged that ensuring the public stays home while sick isn't possible without the support of employers and governments.

"That is not an easy thing to do. That's probably the most difficult habit to sever."

— With files from Kelly Geraldine Malone in Winnipeg, Julian McKenzie in Montreal and Stephanie Taylor in Regina.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 4, 2020


Lauren Krugel, The Canadian Press

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