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O'Reilly's Irish Newfoundland Pub on George Street in downtown St. John's on Dec. 23, 2020.

Sarah Smellie/The Canadian Press

Newfoundland and Labrador is relaxing restrictions for much of the province after a decline in coronavirus cases – but is keeping its capital region in lockdown for the next two weeks.

There were just four new cases of COVID-19 reported in the province Friday, an encouraging sign in the fight against an outbreak that postponed the provincial election. There are now 287 actives cases in the province, and 11 people in hospital because of the virus, five of those in intensive care.

Tight restrictions remain on the Avalon Peninsula, including the closure of all schools and indoor recreational facilities. The province’s top doctor said now is not the time to begin easing protective measures around the capital after seeing how the U.K. variant spread so quickly in early February.

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“With this variant, given what we’ve seen around how easy it is to spread, we want to take our time and make sure when we come out of this, it’ll be safe to do so,” said chief medical health officer Janice Fitzgerald, who also revealed a detailed, three-stage immunization program on Friday.

Schools are under scrutiny in the province after February’s outbreak was linked to a large volleyball tournament at a high school that brought students from across St. John’s together. That one event led to dozens of cases among teenagers, and caused officials in another province, New Brunswick, to speed up vaccination plans for teenagers.

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Newfoundland, which loosened rules around extra-curricular activities in November, was one of the few places in Canada to allow school sports tournaments to resume during the pandemic. Epidemiologists in other parts of the country recommended against those types of large gatherings.

The head of the Newfoundland and Labrador English School District defended the decision Friday, saying the board cautiously allowed tournaments to resume last fall long before there were any signs the highly contagious U.K. variant was in the province.

“Hindsight is 20-20,” school board CEO Tony Stack said. “When school started, we were permitted to operate with extra-curricular activities. We waited until the middle of November, and then gingerly introduced a small amount of activities.”

The board allowed tournaments to resume after months of low case numbers, banned spectators and required physical distancing among players when off court. It eased restrictions further in January, allowing larger numbers of people inside gyms.

“Back in November, we weren’t dealing with the variant. Today we are,” Education Minister Tom Osborne said. “Dr. Fitzgerald has articulated how this variant is a whole new virus, it spreads more easily and more widely. The circumstances have changed.”

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The province’s teachers union had expressed concern about the tournament decision at the time, arguing that other provinces had experienced increased spread of the virus when precautions were relaxed in schools.

“It seems contradictory and counterproductive to increase non-essential access to school buildings and cohort mixing at the same time that public health officials have implemented more stringent precautions for screening,” Dean Ingram, president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Teachers’ Association, said in November.

Schools outside the Avalon Peninsula will resume in-person learning on Wednesday, but with new restrictions. All students in Grade 4 to Grade 12 must wear a mask at all times inside schools, and teachers and staff must wear a face shield and medical-grade mask. High-school classes will also implement a two-metre physical distancing requirement between students. All extra-curricular activities are banned.

The outbreak that sent the province into a lockdown postponed the provincial election until March 12. It cancelled all in-person voting, and moved the vote to a mail-in ballot.

Some lawyers and political scientists have argued it’s not clear the decision to cancel in-person voting and delay the election was legal, and said the results will likely be contested in court. Initial numbers from Elections NL indicate voter turnout could hover around 50 per cent, a historic low.

Across Newfoundland and Labrador, people are being asked to avoid parties, family dinners and any other informal social gatherings. Those who live on the Avalon Peninsula have also been asked not to travel to other parts of the province.

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“Now is not the time to go visiting the malls ... and it’s not the time to go visiting family,” Health Minister John Haggie said.

With files from The Canadian Press.

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