Manitoba mulls move to code orange but may wait until after Easter
Indoor theatres, concert halls, casino and gaming centres considered for limited reopening
Manitoba is considering moving out of the critical code red level under its pandemic response system and into the orange, reopening more services and activities.
Possible changes include increasing outside gathering limits to 25 in public places, including for weddings and funerals. The current limit is 10.
Capacity at retail stores could be expanded to 50 per cent or a maximum of 500 people, whichever is lower, while religious services could also be expanded to allow a capacity of 25 per cent or 250 people, whichever is lower.
Another proposed change would expand indoor restaurant service to allow households to dine with their designated home visitors, currently either two individuals or one other household. Designated visitors cannot be changed under current rules.
WATCH | Pallister says Manitobans more aware of COVID-19 risks now than last spring:
"While we expect to see cases increase as we continue to reopen the economy, we have to accept that COVID-19 is here to stay for many years. This means we all need to learn to live with this virus and find ways to assess our risk without having to implement long-term lockdowns," Chief Provincial Public Health Officer Dr. Brent Roussin said.
Organized sports, indoor theatres
Winnipeg went to the red, or critical, level of the province's pandemic response system on Nov. 2, followed by the rest of the province on Nov. 12, as officials struggled to control a rising tide of cases.
The province began easing restrictions in three-week increments starting in January, but it has never fully emerged from that four-month-long red-level restraint.
The current public health orders are set to expire on March 26 at 12:01 a.m.
Other changes being pondered as part of the move into orange level include allowing organized team games at indoor sporting facilities, and removing the requirement that youth must wear a mask while taking part in indoor sporting activities, such as hockey or soccer.
The province is also looking at allowing indoor theatres, indoor concert halls, casino and gaming centres to reopen their doors, but with a limited capacity.
Removing the 14-day self-isolation requirement for interprovincial travellers who travel for business reasons and do not have symptoms is also being considered.
As it has done with other easings of restrictions, the province has launched an online survey to gauge the public's comfort level with its proposals and to get feedback.
The survey also asks for people's thoughts on when the changes should happen — before or after the Easter weekend at the beginning of April.
Even if the changes happen before Easter, indoor and outdoor gathering sizes at personal residences will not change from the current restrictions, Roussin said.
Close, prolonged contact comes with a higher risk of transmitting the virus, he said.
"I know that Easter and Passover are coming up soon, and that people will want to gather with their loved ones, but we all saw what happened after Thanksgiving last fall — case numbers rose dramatically and we ended up in lockdown for Christmas," Roussin said.
"We don't want to see a repeat of that happening again, just before summer. That is why it is crucial Manitobans continue to follow the fundamentals and to avoid the activities that are known to cause the greatest risk — crowded places, closed spaces and close-contact settings — to ensure the health-care system doesn't get overwhelmed."
Manitoba is planning to relax public health orders just as Ontario health officials announced Ottawa is moving to that province's red zone due to COVID-19 numbers trending upwards. Ottawa will join 12 other areas of Ontario that are already in the red zone.
Going red in Ontario means avoiding social gatherings, only leaving home for essential reasons and not having inside visitors, on top of existing health advice, including masking, distancing and staying home when sick. Unlike Manitoba, it is not the top step of the system; in Ontario, the lockdown stage is the grey zone, and five areas are in grey.
Manitoba's announcement comes as several more cases of highly contagious coronavirus variants were reported in the province.
Twelve more cases involving coronavirus variants of concern were announced by public health officials on Thursday, bringing Manitoba's total variant caseload to date to 76.
Officials also announced Wednesday that at least one of the more infectious variants — B1351, which was first identified in South Africa — had been spreading in Manitoba for at least two weeks before it was reported by public health officials.
WATCH | Full news conference on COVID-19 | March 18, 2021:
Roussin admitted many of the proposed restrictions, on gathering sizes and travel, will be difficult to enforce but he appealed to the public's sense of doing what's right for the greater good.
"Our success on these have always relied on Manitobans co-operating with us and doing their part," he said.
"We know that this virus is still here. We're still seeing numbers. And even as we open things up, we're seeing some of that test positivity even gradually increase now, as we expect.
"So we have to be very cognizant that if we, again, lose track of those fundamentals, we could look at a third wave and have to move backwards. And I don't think there's anyone who really wants that to occur."
Roussin was asked why the province is making things more complicated for restaurants by micro-managing the groupings of customers, while not doing the same at other businesses.
"If we have six different people sitting at the same table from six different households, that dramatically increases our risk," he said, pointing again to the danger of close, prolonged contact indoors.
Asked how that's different for indoor venues like theaters, concert halls, and casinos — where people sit for long stretches — Roussin said there's more ability to distance people in those larger spaces, which are also subject to "a dramatically reduced capacity with a cap."