Tough talk and empty bluster: How Manitoba created conditions for a COVID comeback

Manitoba's government has made it clear its primary means of ensuring compliance with public health measures is not enforcement, but stern lectures. It also has not acknowledged its own role in this fall's pandemic spike.

Absent enforcement, muddy messaging and poor preparation can not be blamed on the general public

Premier Brian Pallister, seen here at the launch of the Restart Manitoba ad campaign in Brandon, has twice announced pandemic enforcement measures. The province issued less than one fine per day all spring, summer and fall. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

The COVID-19 pandemic was barely a month old when Premier Brian Pallister pledged to crack down on Manitobans who failed to observe public health orders.

Way back on April 9, the premier promised to enlist police officers, liquor inspectors, conservation officers and other public employees in the task of ensuring anyone selfish enough to ignore pandemic restrictions faced some form of financial consequences.

"I would tell those who are so disrespectful of the rest of us to understand they'll be everywhere, in every neighbourhood — everywhere you are," the premier said during a press briefing.

"You better change the way you are behaving and that you better do it now or you'll be lighter in the pocketbook very soon."

The premier's tough talk turned out to be empty bluster. The province never did create some form of ad-hoc pandemic police, at least not utilizing those public employees.

At this stage of the pandemic, Manitoba's government has made it clear its primary means of ensuring compliance with public health measures is not enforcement, but stern lectures and other forms of hectoring. It also has not acknowledged its own role in this fall's pandemic spike.

In an appearance last week — more than six months after he initially pledged to place COVID cops in every neighbourhood — Pallister once again promised to enlist police officers, liquor inspectors, conservation officers and other public employees in the task of enforcing pandemic restrictions.

During the 195-day span between those two announcements, Manitoba handed out 134 fines to pandemic rule-breakers.

In other words, the premier's first promise of a crackdown in early April netted 0.68 fines per day until he made a second, very similar promise in late October.

Pallister could not say how many more police, liquor inspectors, conservation officers and other public employees would be enlisted to conduct enforcement, over and above those who were supposedly doing the job already.

"I think we could get you that list," he said. "I don't have it with me."

You may now use your best Arrested Development narrator's voice to say the following out loud: The list never arrived.

(Bryce Hoye/CBC)

What's clear is this province has never been serious about enforcing pandemic restrictions, at least not with money of its own.

What Pallister also announced last week was a legislative amendment that would allow 130 municipal bylaw officers to hand out fines.

The City of Winnipeg, which has long complained of meagre funding from the province, was instantly handed another responsibility. Yeah, it's a real mystery why Mayor Brian Bowman no longer wants his job.

The premier doubled down on his tough talk a few days later, when he and Manitoba's Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Brent Roussin lectured the populace about socializing while symptomatic.

"People are doing dumb things, and those dumb things are endangering all of us," Pallister said during a Monday press briefing. "Grow up. Stop going out there and giving people COVID."

In the absence of actual enforcement, it isn't hard to imagine how selfish people could continue to be selfish. Again, the province handed out less than one pandemic fine per day all spring, summer and fall.

Dumb behaviour by decent people is also easy to explain: The province's pandemic messaging has been muddy.

In August, the province paid for "Ready. Safe. Grow" billboards that advertised the reopening of the economy without including any public-health messaging. 

The Pallister government urged all Manitobans to do their part to combat the spread of COVID-19 while it failed to do its own part to prepare for the next wave of cases epidemiologists around the world warned about.

In August, Manitoba declined to hire enough public health nurses to meet the demand for nasopharyngeal swabs at COVID-19 testing sites in Winnipeg in September.

In September, Manitoba declined to hire enough of those same nurses to meet the demand for contact tracing the positive cases that exploded in Winnipeg in October.

Now, as a series of increasingly tough restrictions imposed on the Winnipeg area fails to slow the number of new cases, hospitalizations and deaths, the premier and the chief provincial public health officer are blaming the general public for Manitoba becoming a COVID-19 hotspot.

"We're not seeing the the results that we expected with the restrictions," Roussin said Wednesday when he was asked whether the provincial pandemic response was a failure.

"We're not seeing the the uptake of the recommendations or even the orders."

(Bryce Hoye/CBC)

During the same press briefing, Roussin nonetheless made another recommendation.

"We need to stop socializing with people outside of our household for now," he said, effectively advising Winnipeggers to take the maximum group size down to zero.

Roussin did not announce any new public orders on Wednesday, but he did make it clear more will come if case numbers and hospitalizations continue to rise.

Even a gathering size of zero won't work if the general public doesn't adhere to it. The carrot hasn't worked for Manitoba.

The question is whether this premier and this government are willing to wield a stick.


Bartley Kives

Reporter, CBC Manitoba

Reporter Bartley Kives joined CBC Manitoba in 2016. Prior to that, he spent three years at the Winnipeg Sun and 18 at the Winnipeg Free Press, writing about politics, music, food and outdoor recreation. He's the author of the Canadian bestseller A Daytripper's Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada's Undiscovered Province and co-author of both Stuck in the Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg and Stuck In The Middle 2: Defining Views of Manitoba. His work has also appeared in publications such as the Guardian and Explore magazine.


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