Manitoba to drop capacity limits next week, eliminate mask mandates by mid-March
Proof of vaccination requirement to be eliminated March 1
Manitoba will eliminate capacity limits for many businesses and other venues starting Tuesday as the province aims to abolish all restrictions, including mask mandates, on March 15.
The province also intends to remove all proof of vaccination requirements on March 1, which means vaccination cards will no longer be needed.
All restrictions will end March 15, Premier Heather Stefanson said at a Friday morning news conference.
"Today we offer hope to those who have been waiting for a long time to see that light at the end of the tunnel," she said.
"The restrictions have placed many burdens on Manitobans, and now that we see the pressure of our hospital systems starting to ease, it's our responsibility of government to ease those restrictions on Manitobans."
Stefanson, who has stressed the importance of getting vaccinated, toned that message down on Friday. While she said she and her family are fully vaccinated, she added that "the choice to get vaccinated is yours."
"It's time for a new normal to begin in Manitoba," she said.
"We need to end the divisiveness between families, between communities. We need to move forward. It's time to bring Manitobans back together again."
On Tuesday, pandemic capacity limits will be dropped for restaurants, licensed premises, entertainment venues, indoor and outdoor sporting events and casinos and gatherings at private residences.
They will also be removed for outdoor public gatherings.
Indoor public gathering limits will be removed if proof of vaccination is required to enter. If not, the limit will be 50 people.
Anyone age 12 to 17 who is participating in indoor sports and recreation will no longer be required to provide proof of vaccination or recent testing.
There are no changes to retail and personal services until March.
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Also as of Tuesday, unvaccinated close contacts of a person who tests positive for COVID-19 will no longer be required to self-isolate.
Public health continues to recommend self-isolation for people who live in a household with someone who has symptoms or tests positive for COVID-19, but it will no longer be required.
Self-isolation requirements for people entering the province will also be discontinued. However, anyone travelling from international destinations will continue to be required to meet requirements under the federal Quarantine Act.
Public health orders restricting travel to northern Manitoba remain in place.
"Based on the information and data monitored by public health, we are seeing strong signals that the Omicron wave has peaked and is now having a reduced impact here in Manitoba," said Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba's chief provincial public health officer.
"So we are certainly turning the corner in the pandemic."
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But it is not over yet, he said, adding Manitoba is in "an important time of transition" that still requires people to get vaccinated and stay home when sick.
Though gathering limits will no longer be required, they are still strongly recommended, he said.
The changes — which are coming a week earlier than the current restrictions were initially set to expire — will include moving Manitoba to the yellow caution level under the province's pandemic response system from the current restricted orange level.
Schools will also return to yellow, which means cohorts are only required in kindergarten to Grade 6. Masks are required indoors for staff and students but will not be required during physical education classes.
Medical masks will be recommended but no longer required for school staff.
Schools will continue to send out community notification letters if public health officials have identified increased transmission or recommended remote learning for a class, cohort or entire school.
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As well, Manitoba's online dashboard will continue to post this information but will no longer include case numbers, the province said in a release.
Children, school staff and child-care staff will only be eligible for PCR testing if medically indicated, in line with eligibility criteria for all Manitobans.
In some settings, such as personal care homes, shelters and health-care facilities, public health officials have continued to work with facilities to notify close contacts of people who test positive, but that will end on March 8, the province said in a news release.
Health group disappointed
The Manitoba Health Coalition, a non-profit health-care advocacy group, released a statement on Friday expressing its disappointment with the changes.
It suggested the province is responding to the anti-restrictions convoy set up outside the legislative building and international border.
"It is disheartening that the provincial government has chosen to reject the reality facing our health-care system in favour of catering to extreme voices that do not reflect the view of Manitobans," coalition provincial director Thomas Linner said in a news release.
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Stefanson denied she is capitulating to the demands of the protesters, telling reporters that discussions toward reopening have been going on for some time as the data began to improve.
Stefanson and Roussin kept repeating that many statistical indicators back their decision to drop the mandates, yet did not present any supporting data.
When asked about it, Stefanson said it would be released, then shrugged in response to a followup question on when that might be.
Roussin said he would present it next Wednesday at the weekly COVID-19 news conference.
Too soon to lift restrictions: NDP, Liberals
The government is clearly not listening to those working on the front lines of our health-care system, said NDP Opposition Leader Wab Kinew, who believes the system is not ready for mandates to be lifted.
As of midnight, there are 101 adult patients in intensive care units, counting both those with COVID-19 and those being treated for non-COVID-related issues. The critical care program's normal, pre-COVID baseline capacity was 72 patients.
"We know that people want to see an end to restrictions. We know that that is going to be coming this year, but we also know that we're not out of the woods yet," Kinew said.
"The fact that the premier would not share data, or really any proof for the rationale as to why she's making the announcement today, should cause you great concern and lead to skepticism for the motivation of that announcement."
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"Disgraceful" was Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont's adjective choice in describing the easing of restrictions.
He said he is stunned the government wants to repeal "really basic, simple measures that work" and is annoyed by the suggestion they cause harm.
"There are lots of people who have suffered but part of that pain and suffering has been the pain of sacrifice to help keep other people alive," he said.
"For the premier to say people want their lives back, well, there are over 1,600 Manitobans who are dead, who are never going to get their lives back and their families are never going to see them again.
"And it's because of the sheer incompetence of this government and indifference to human life. It's disgraceful what we saw today."
Roussin said there could be a time in the future that restrictions need to be reinstated, such as if a new variant puts the health-care system under increasing strain again.
"We've done this before. We've loosened restrictions … and then at times we've had to reinstate them," he said.
"What we see now is that we have such a tremendously high vaccine uptake, the thought is we're at a point where we can look to remove these restrictions outright and hope never to have to put them in again.
"But that's going to depend on what we see with the virus. Further variants are certainly not out of the question, and we'll have to deal with that as that arises. But we're not going to leave restrictions in unnecessarily."