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Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe speaks at a COVID-19 news update at the Legislative Building in Regina on March 18, 2020.Michael Bell/The Canadian Press

Saskatchewan has laid out a detailed, comprehensive plan to reopen its economy, the first province in the country to do so.

The plan, laid out in five phases, will start on May 4, with the resumption of non-essential medical procedures, and the reopening of provincial parks, campgrounds and golf courses. About two weeks later, retail businesses and personal services, such as hair salons and massage therapists, will be permitted to open.

From there, the province will gradually ease back on other restrictions as long as COVID-19 infections are kept at bay.

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“Some may be concerned [it] is far too soon, that reopening businesses in the coming weeks could increase the spread of COVID-19,” Premier Scott Moe said. “We have to find the middle ground that continues to keep our case numbers low and keep Saskatchewan people safe, while at the same time allowing for businesses to reopen and Saskatchewan people to get back to work.”

Mr. Moe warned that that the process would be slow and that life in his province is unlikely to return to normal any time soon.

The final three phases, which will include reopening restaurants, gyms, daycares and increasing limits on mass gatherings, have no dates attached. The government says the timeline will depend on COVID-19 infections. The plan contemplates maintaining some limits on public gatherings, even in the final phase.

The province plans to increase testing and contact tracing to detect new infections and prevent additional spread.

Saskatchewan has had 331 cases of COVID-19, including four deaths, but the pace of infections has been relatively slow. In recent weeks, the province has added fewer than 10 cases a day and its total per capita infections are well below the Canadian average. Its testing rates are also higher than average.

A number of governments across Canada are now turning their attention to restarting parts of their economies as early as next month. Prince Edward Island says it will lift some restrictions on May 1, while British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba, Quebec and New Brunswick have all said they are working on their own plans.

The provinces say they are working with each other and the federal government, though the delicate return to normalcy – or some version of it – is likely to vary across Canada.

In Saskatchewan, all businesses that are permitted to open will be expected to practise physical distancing and, where that’s not possible, businesses must screen clients and provide staff with personal protective equipment such as masks.

Mr. Moe said provincial governments are in frequent contact but he said there is no problem with them setting their own timelines. He said the COVID-19 situation is dramatically different from province to province and the physical-distancing measures need to match conditions on the ground.

“I don’t think there’s a risk either way with provinces lifting restrictions or looking at how they are going to reopen certain sectors of their economy.

“Every province is at a different stage or in a different situation [in terms of COVID-19 infections], and often those provinces aren’t that far apart.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the federal government is working to co-ordinate provincial plans so that decisions on reopening the economy are based on common guidelines.

“We know that everyone wants to know when this is going to be over,” Mr. Trudeau said during his daily news conference. “But in the coming months, we will be able to loosen a number of the restrictions and rules that we have right now. … Different provinces are in very different postures related to COVID-19 and will be taking decisions that are appropriate for them."

Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer, Theresa Tam, said she is working with her provincial counterparts to identify guidelines for easing restrictions. Dr. Tam told reporters Thursday that examples of such guidelines include the capacity to trace individuals who were in contact with an infected person and whether workplaces have plans in place to minimize the spread of infections.

Craig Jenne, an infectious-disease expert who teaches at the University of Calgary, said it makes sense to tailor plans to fit the circumstances in different parts of the country, but he said lack of uniform rules in neighbouring jurisdictions could cause problems.

“These are fluid borders, they are a line on a map but not necessarily a line in day-to-day life," he said.

“You’ll get people seeking businesses that are open and crossing provincial boundaries. You may also be putting undo pressure on neighbouring jurisdictions to keep up, when their numbers may not support it yet.”

He said all it takes is a single infection in a long-term care home or in an area that doesn’t have COVID-19 to start an outbreak.

With reports from Bill Curry in Ottawa and The Canadian Press

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