He speaks about it cautiously, like he’s crossing his fingers. But Prince Edward Island Premier Dennis King is setting the date to start lifting coronavirus restrictions: May 1 marks the beginning of the island’s “ease back.”
PEI, Mr. King said, is in a unique and fortunate position. According to official statistics, it is nearly free of COVID-19. Starting late next week, the province plans to start lifting restrictions on some outdoor activities and begin performing elective procedures in hospitals.
Officials will watch and monitor and, if all goes well, move on to a second phase about two weeks later, in mid-May. That includes opening some shops and restaurants, Mr. King said in an interview.
And in that, Prince Edward Island will be a not-entirely-typical experiment for the whole country to watch. That’s not to coldly call them the nation’s clinical guinea pigs. Canadians will surely cheer them on.
The province might soon be joined by a neighbour, too: If New Brunswick’s COVID-19 caseload remains low, it will also start to ease restrictions, Premier Blaine Higgs said through a spokesperson.
In the meantime, Mr. King is the first to set the date – with caution in his voice. He had no trouble acknowledging he had the example of other provinces to follow.
“Am I nervous about it?” he said. “Absolutely.”
“You just have to look at what’s going on not very far from here, in places like Quebec and Ontario and Nova Scotia, to realize how susceptible we are, or could be. I think we’re very fortunate that we’re an island. And we utilized that to contain our borders. But I’m very nervous.”
PEI’s statistics are nothing like the other provinces he named. There have been only 26 confirmed cases, and 23 have recovered. There has not been a new case confirmed since April 15. But officials there, like everywhere else, cannot be sure there are not undetected cases out there.
As Mr. King points out, the province probably did benefit from being an island. There are only four entry points for travellers, and two are ferries that aren’t operating; screening is in place at the airport and the Confederation Bridge. COVID-19 came relatively late to PEI, so physical-distancing rules appear to have kicked in early enough to prevent much spread.
It is also unlike Quebec or Ontario in other ways, so its reopening will presumably be different. The province is, by Canadian standards, relatively densely populated, but it does not have big cities. Mr. King faced political blowback because he didn’t open the season for anglers; that will be among the first restrictions eased.
“We also want to find a way to get our kids and our students to be able to interact a little ... whether that would be to have a catch or shoot some baskets or things like that, but recognizing you need a physical distance as well,” Mr. King said.
In the second phase, some small businesses, including retail and restaurants, would reopen. “The next phase of regular life, so to speak,” Mr. King said.
“You would be probably looking at how we could operate with maybe 50-per-cent capacity to start, to allow for physical distancing, not just in the restaurant but in the kitchen as much as possible. That could be a little bit more if you are using an outdoor deck or something.”
Even that will be an experiment for the country to watch. Like grocery stores and processing facilities, which have erected Plexiglas and separated workers and customers, they’ll have to alter the way they do business initially, Mr. King said. PEI’s Chief Health Officer, Dr. Heather Morrison, said public-health officials will work with industries and monitor for outbreaks, checking to see whether an industry has to be shut down again.
Schools might take longer. Officially, PEI schools are closed till May 11, but Mr. King said he’d love to reopen them in early June, perhaps on a staggered schedule. Tourism will be limited. Maybe, he said, travel to New Brunswick could be possible in July.
In the meantime, other provinces can watch their example. “I hope there’s lessons they can learn from us that are not too hard-learned here,” Mr. King said. At the very least, Canadians can root for their success.
Sign up for the Coronavirus Update newsletter to read the day’s essential coronavirus news, features and explainers written by Globe reporters.