Manitoba's top doctor tries to clear confusion around household contact restrictions

Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba’s chief public health officer, tried to clear up confusion Thursday around whether new COVID-19 restrictions forbid people from socializing outside their households.

Stick to your households, even though public health orders don't demand it, Dr. Brent Roussin says

Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba's chief public health officer, takes off his mask to speak during the province's latest COVID-19 update at the Manitoba Legislature in Winnipeg Friday, Oct. 30, 2020. (John Woods/The Canadian Press)

Manitoba's chief public health officer tried to clear up confusion Thursday around whether new COVID-19 restrictions forbid people from socializing outside their households.

When announcing earlier this week that the whole province would go into a partial lockdown, Dr. Brent Roussin said that social gatherings were not permitted, and that social contact should be limited to members of your household. 

When the full details of the province's public health orders were released on Wednesday, however, the maximum indoor and outdoor gathering size was left at five people — which was already the gathering limit across the province, as of Nov. 2.

The five-person limit does not include people who reside in a household.

At a news conference on Thursday, Roussin said he never intended to change the enforceable limit set out in the public health orders. He added that even though the latest public health orders don't explicitly forbid socializing outside one's household, that doesn't mean it's OK to do it.

"Let's just be absolutely clear that the message from public health is to stay home, leave for essential reasons only, only socialize with those inside your household," Roussin said.

Public health orders must be "black and white," but there are many reasons why people might need to have contact outside their households, he said.

"It's hard to take in the myriad of possibilities that occur in day-to-day life."

For example, some people may need to get child care from family members or care for an elderly neighbour.

"We don't want them thinking that they will be under threat of a fine just to receive some help that they need," Roussin said.

WATCH | Dr. Brent Roussin urges Manitobans to stick to their households, despite five-person limit:

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Other strong public health recommendations, such as advising people to only send one person out to get essential items, don't come with a fine attached, he said.

"We don't have to rely on orders for every possible public health advice."

Winnipeg has been at the red, or critical, level — the highest on the province's pandemic response system — since Nov. 2. The Southern Health region followed on Monday, and the rest of Manitoba moved to the critical level as of Thursday.

That shift includes increased restrictions on business capacity in regions that had already been at the highest level.

Should be 'no daylight' between advice, order: NDP

Opposition NDP Leader Wab Kinew told reporters that although he endorses the recommendation that people limit contacts to their households, the provincial government has confused Manitobans by not making it enforceable. 

"I think there should be no daylight between the advice and the [public health] order," Kinew said after Roussin's news conference.

He accused the government, and Premier Brian Pallister in particular, of not doing enough to enforce existing orders.

"This is a very critical moment," he said.

"Manitobans want to do the right thing by public health. And this whole issue, it's really unfortunate. It's causing unnecessary confusion when we can least afford it."

Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont said the problems with the government's response go beyond what he called "mixed messaging."

The province needs to do more to support Manitobans to enable them to properly follow the public health orders, he said.

"That's the only way we're going to be able to make this work, is for people to be able to afford to stay home. And this government hasn't done that to date."

With files from Bartley Kives and Cameron MacLean