Manitoba considers limited opening of restaurants, gyms and churches as COVID-19 cases trend downward
Outdoor sports, film industry, services at places of worship could resume under new rules
In a little over a week, Manitobans could soon be doing things they haven't in three months: ordering a meal to eat inside a restaurant, working out at a gym and sitting in a church.
The province's COVID-19 curve has been bending in the right direction, which means it's time to look at further reopening the economy, Premier Brian Pallister said Thursday.
As it did ahead of last month's modest loosening of some restrictions, the province has again launched an online survey to gauge public opinion. This time around, though, it's a much more broad reopening.
The province is now floating the idea of allowing restaurants, tattoo parlours, gyms, nail salons and libraries to reopen with limited capacity.
It also is considering allowing places of worship to reopen, increasing capacity for weddings and enabling the film industry and photographers to resume work.
Organized outdoor sports may be allowed to resume for games or practices but no multi-team tournaments. Similarly, gyms will likely only be allowed to offer one-on-one training sessions — no group classes.
The proposed changes would come into effect on Feb. 13, when the current restrictions are set to expire. Manitobans will likely see a draft of the restrictions on Tuesday and a final version shortly after that.
'Another big day'
Pallister said when the restrictions were slightly eased last month, it was celebrated as a "big day" with the promise of more to come "if we keep doing the right things and following those orders, protecting ourselves and one another."
"Today is another big day," he said Thursday.
The proposed plan limits most services, businesses or activities to 25 per cent of their normal capacity. Places of worship face the strictest reopening limits at a maximum of 10 per cent capacity or 50 people, whichever is lower.
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The changes will not remove Manitoba from the red, or critical, level on the pandemic response scale, but it will put the entire province on the same page.
The northern half of Manitoba — parts of which have faced recent spikes in case numbers — was not included when the province eased some of the pandemic restrictions on Jan. 23.
'Better than takeout'
Melanie Foucault and her husband opened Preservation Hall Eatery and Wine Bar on June 26, during Manitoba's brief summer lull in COVID-19 cases. At the time restaurants were allowed to be open at 50 per cent capacity.
"It's really hard in the restaurant business, to be a viable restaurant, when our capacity is restricted to such a degree."
Despite the hesitancy some customers felt about going out to restaurants, Foucault says business started out well. On one of their $1 oyster Wednesdays, they had a two-hour waitlist, she says.
The 5,087-square-foot, 160-seat restaurant on Empress Street hasn't opened since Oct. 31, just before the city went to code red, the highest level on the province's pandemic scale.
Despite facing the same challenges as established restaurants, Foucault says her business can't access most support programs because they can't show a loss compared to the year prior.
Now her business can reopen, at half of the already-reduced capacity allowed when they first opened last summer.
"It's better than takeout," she said. "We love all of the support that the community has shown us in the 3½ months that we'll have been locked down. However that being said, it's just not the same as having dine-in guests."
Household visits remain capped
One thing not proposed to change under the new orders is the household visitor restrictions, which will remain capped at two designated people.
Visits of no more than five people, aside from the members of a household, will continue to be allowed on outdoor private property.
Retail stores will also remain open at 25 per cent capacity or 250 people maximum. Hair salons and barbershops will also stay open with capacity restrictions.
While Manitoba's cases continue to trend in the right direction, Pallister said residents must stay on guard.
"The risks of new COVID variants are real. The risks of vaccine shortages and delays are real. The risks of reopening too quickly are also real," he said. "We must, and we will, proceed with caution."
Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba's chief provincial health officer, said the province is in a much more stable place than it was during the height of the second wave in November and December, when daily cases surpassed 400 and even 500.
"We're not seeing evidence of a spike in numbers related to the last set of very cautious reopenings put in place Jan. 23," he said.
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"We remain in a very crucial part of our pandemic response and these upcoming weeks are going to be quite telling as to the success we're going to be able to enjoy moving forward.
"Of course, the fundamentals are going to apply for the foreseeable future — physical distancing, washing your hands frequently, wearing a mask and staying home when you're ill."
'It's taken a toll on all of us'
Roussin emphasized that enforcement will be strong should the proposed reopenings proceed.
"These orders are allowing us to get back to some of the things we miss and love," he said, adding no one wants to see that taken away because the economy has to be shut down again, so adherence to the rules would be paramount.
"We all recognize how difficult these restrictions have been on Manitobans," he said. "It's taken a toll on all of us. It's been quite a difficult year for us, especially the last couple of months, but we're not ready to go back to normal."
COVID-19 numbers the province is currently seeing are similar to those in early October, but Roussin said restrictions will not be eased as much as they were last fall.
For example, he said a lot of transmission among young people at that time was linked to bars. The province isn't proposing reopening them now.
"We're opening restaurants and lounges, but with even stricter capacity issues because we're only allowing household members to be seated together," Roussin said.
"Let's remember, we were definitely here before and we kind of let [control of] the virus slip away from us at that time. So let's keep the virus under control. Let's get back to the things we miss, but in a cautious manner."
Pallister urged people to limit their social contacts "even though we're broadening those opportunities."
"We do not want a COVID party every time we get together," he said. "If we follow the rules and abide by the fundamentals, we have every reason to be hopeful."
Enforcement questions remain
Roussin said he didn't have a definitive answer as to how restaurants should enforce the rules they're required to follow, such as limiting customer groups to household members, but said enforcement details would follow soon.
Pallister said it's "eminently easy" for businesses to keep track of who comes into a restaurant, and that will be "a necessary part of your responsibilities in reopening."
Restaurant owner Foucault says she's still waiting for guidance from the province on exactly how they are expected to enforce the order forbidding groups of more than one household, but says they will follow up with groups of more than two to make sure they belong to the same household, and use a "common-sense approach."
"If you have two couples coming in for a reservation for four, chances are they do not live in the same household," she said.
"The question is whether we turn away those guests or if we enforce that mandate. As restaurants have been struggling, I can see some maybe not wanting to enforce that."
Public libraries also will be allowed to open at 25 per cent capacity and will be expected to limit any groups to members of the same households.
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Roussin was also asked why people may only be allowed to go to restaurants with members of their own household, yet could play on sports teams or go to church services under the proposed changes.
The expectation for faith-based gatherings is that groups sitting together would be members of the same household, Roussin said, though that wasn't spelled out in the proposal. He also noted the number of people allowed inside a place of worship will be quite small, with a capacity of just 10 per cent, or 50 people, whichever is lower.
Sporting events, he said, would only be allowed outdoors, where the risk of transmission is lower.
There will likely be a number of specific scenarios that appear to fall outside the new restrictions, but they will be addressed when necessary, Roussin said.
"This is a list of proposals, so it may not look exactly like this as we start to implement it."
With files from Bartley Kives and Cameron MacLean