HALIFAX -- The Nova Scotia government has eased some of the public health measures and restrictions related to COVID-19 -- including the reopening of beaches and allowing two separate households from the same immediate family to "bubble" together.

Premier Stephen McNeil and Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Robert Strang said they felt they could ease some more restrictions heading into the long weekend because the province has seen low case numbers this week.

“Our collective actions are flattening the curve,” said Strang. “That’s why in discussions with the premier we feel it’s the right time to talk about more opportunities for social connection, but doing that carefully and safely.”

They also expressed concerns about the toll the pandemic and the physical-distancing measures are taking on Nova Scotians’ mental health.

“Social connections are really important. We are, after all, social creatures. There’s growing science around the health impacts of isolation,” said Strang.

“Connecting with family and friends is critically important for our collective mental health and for sustaining a positive sense of community.”

How does the 'bubble' work?

The "bubble" allows for two separate households from the same immediate family -- such as parents, siblings or grandparents -- to come together without physical distancing.

However, the two families must be mutually exclusive to each other to minimize the risk of spreading COVID-19.

“We want to reconnect families, but we can’t put anyone at risk,” said McNeil. “We need you to do it safely.”

Strang said he realizes the “bubble” concept won’t work for everyone, as some Nova Scotians may not have immediate family living in the province, or they may be estranged from their immediate family.

“I want people to recognize that even though this doesn’t fit for everybody, necessarily, this is a first step towards opening up our social networks in a measured way,” he said.

The change takes effect immediately.

Who should I include in my 'bubble?'

When deciding which other immediate-family household to “bubble” with, Strang and McNeil said families should consider three factors -- age, occupation and the health conditions of all household members.

“So, for example, if you’re an essential service worker surrounded by others at work, and you have older parents who have been isolating, you might not be the right choice to be their immediate-family bubble,” explained McNeil.

“But, if you have a sibling who has been isolating at home, they can be your parents’ immediate-family bubble. You cannot do this with more than one household and you cannot take visitors.”

Strang said it’s important to consider a person’s risk when deciding which household to include in your “bubble.” People over the age of 65, who live with chronic illness, or who work in certain industries, such as the health-care sector, are considered higher risk, and may not want to “bubble” with others.

Strang also noted that if one family member is sick, all members of both households should stop visiting one another until the person feels better or has been tested for COVID-19 and cleared.

“We don’t want to put anyone at increased risk or create conditions where the virus can easily come back and spread,” said Strang. “If that happens, we can find ourselves back at square one.”

Families are still unable to host large gatherings, such as birthday celebrations or reunions.

“Being isolated from your immediate family is lonely and your mental health matters to us,” said McNeil. “So the immediate-family bubble is a trial run. If we see a new spike in cases after doing this, we will have to separate you again.”

Outdoor activities and beaches

The province has also loosened some of the restrictions on outdoor activities.

Archery, equestrianism, golf, paddling, sailing, boating and tennis can resume at outdoor facilities as of 8 a.m. Saturday.

However, Nova Scotians must still keep their distance from other people who are not members of their two-household bubble, while engaging in these activities.

“We want to get people outdoors to be active, but do it at a safe distance of six feet,” said Strang.

Organized coaching or training, competitions, tournaments, regattas and other similar events are still not permitted.

Public beaches can reopen as of Saturday at 8 a.m.

People must stay two metres apart and not gather in groups of more than five at beaches.

“If we start to see more virus activity, we may well have to pull back and restrict these activities again,” warned Strang.

“COVID-19 is still here. We have good signs, but it’s still a risk. However, there is definitely a light at the tunnel.”

Fire ban extended, but fire pits allowed

The provincial fire ban on open fires has been extended to Monday, June 1 at 11:59 p.m.

This includes fires within 305 metres, or 1,000 feet, of woods anywhere in the province, including domestic brush and beach fires.

However, the use of backyard appliances, such as chimineas and fire pits, is temporarily permitted for households.

“You can only sit around your fire, however, with your household or the household in your immediate-family bubble,” explained Strang. “This is another way to get out and enjoy the outdoors.”

The ban does not apply to private campgrounds.

The provincewide ban on open fires was first introduced on March 25 as a precautionary measure to reduce the number of fires and help maintain firefighting resources during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Reopening Nova Scotia

The provincial government says a phased plan to further lift public health restrictions is in the works, but no dates have been set at this time.

The reopening plan will be informed by local data and consultation, and guided by a national framework developed by chief medical officers of health.

The timing of each phase will be determined by the result of the easing of restrictions.

"We're continuing to consult and Dr. Strang will present a plan soon that will see Nova Scotia reopen slowly and safely,” said McNeil. “We need to get this right."