Joceline Arsenault crams her car between dozens of others in front of Scooters Dairy Bar in Miscouche, PEI. It’s cold and the dining patio is still off-limits. Yet, Ms. Arsenault lingers around the counter with other customers, in groups no bigger than five, to make conversation. Together, they enjoy a long-awaited sliver of normalcy.
“I’m celebrating a few things today,” Ms. Arsenault said. “It’s my birthday, and we get to be around people outside.”
On Friday, Prince Edward Island entered its first of four phases to lift restrictions that were put in place in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Canada’s smallest province, which had only six novel coronavirus cases in the month of April, is the second province after New Brunswick to embark on a reopening plan. Several other provinces, such as Saskatchewan and Manitoba, have also revealed plans to start reopening various services next week.
Phase 1 of “Renew P.E.I., Together” allows for outdoor gatherings of up to five people from different households, select outdoor recreation activities such as fishing and golf, the resumption of non-essential construction projects, and health care services such as elective surgery and manual physiotherapy, which had been put on hold.
Island business owners and residents are enthusiastic about this first step toward normal life. Corena Hughes can hold in-person appointments at Body Works, a physiotherapy clinic in Charlottetown, for the first time since March 17. Within a half hour of PEI’s Phase 1 announcement on April 28, Ms. Hughes received many excited text messages from clients who had settled for online appointments during the outbreak.
“I am so relieved,” she said. “You can't be as effective for clients online. There are obvious limitations to virtual physiotherapy – it’s a manual profession.”
Physical distancing guidelines will continue to forbid Ms. Hughes from seeing more than one client at a time, like she regularly does, but she sees the new regulations as a huge leap forward.
“It’s still a big morale boost for me and for clients,” she said. “We can celebrate that we’ve made it here.”
The loosening of public-health measures is also good news for David Arsenault. The co-owner of Wellington Construction has started rehiring the three-quarters of his staff he had to lay off in mid-March. The construction company retained some contracts deemed essential during the outbreak, including the building of health care centres and some new homes, but now it can resume work on projects such as house extensions, garages and foundations.
“Things are looking up,” Mr. Arsenault said Wednesday. “I just rehired a few workers this morning. That feels nice to do.”
Four golf courses across the island opened Friday with a full list of bookings and new guidelines to ensure physical distancing, such as 15 minutes between tee-offs and no more than one golfer in each cart. Sean Joyce, the executive director of the PEI Golf Association, is relieved he can start operations on his usual schedule – the 13 other courses will open later in the month, as planned before the pandemic.
“There are lots of excited golfers out there right now,” he said. “The main thing we are waiting on now is good weather.”
From here, PEI plans to progress through its four phases in three-week increments. Phase 2, which is set to start on May 22, will allow for outdoor gatherings of up to 10 people, as well as the opening of childcare centres and some select businesses and indoor services such as car washes and retail stores.
Phase 3 will allow for outdoor gatherings of up to 20 and the potential reopening of indoor fitness facilities and libraries, and of campgrounds for PEI residents only. Phase 4 will allow for large gatherings and loosened restrictions at provincial entry points – its prospective start date is still undetermined.
The reopening of schools on the Island was not included in any phase of the plan, but Minister of Education Brad Trivers announced Thursday that designated schools on PEI will be reopening to students who receive support from educational assistants on May 11.
PEI’s Chief Health Officer Heather Morrison said the island’s small population allows for unique testing measures, which helped make Friday’s reopening possible.
“Not only do we have the broadest testing criteria in the country,” she said, “we are exploring testing people in risk groups without symptoms, like long haul truckers, international travellers and health care providers.”
Dr. Morrison also said that it is not the time to abuse new liberties, as the threat of contracting COVID-19 is still alive. On Friday, she stressed “it is important we move through this first phase carefully” to minimize risk for other Islanders.
Sign up for the Coronavirus Update newsletter to read the day’s essential coronavirus news, features and explainers written by Globe reporters and editors.