Business owners relieved as Manitoba eases restrictions, but doctor warns of race against coronavirus variant
Dr. Anand Kumar says plan still doesn't factor in effect of highly contagious delta variant
As some Manitobans and small business owners celebrate the news that the province's latest lockdown measures will ease up on Saturday, one Winnipeg doctor is shaking his head at the decision.
Dr. Anand Kumar, an intensive care physician and infectious disease specialist who has been a critic of the province's reopening plan, says it's still too early to begin loosening those rules.
"Our test positivity and our case counts will continue to go down for about two weeks but then they'll stabilize and then they'll start to climb back up," he warned.
He's also concerned the plan doesn't consider the highly contagious B.1617.2 variant, also known as the delta variant. Early data suggests a single dose of COVID-19 vaccine may be relatively ineffective against that variant.
As of Tuesday, there were two deaths and 164 cases linked to that strain in Manitoba, the province's online variant dashboard says. That's up from seven cases on June 4.
"What's going on with COVID, in particular the delta variant, is essentially a foot race. Unlike the human runner, though, it actually accelerates as we get towards the finish line," said Kumar.
"Right now, I think we're almost on a trajectory to lose the race. How badly we lose it, I don't know."
He's concerned about the new rules announced Wednesday, which will take effect at 12:01 a.m. Saturday and allow businesses like restaurants, gyms and hair salons to reopen.
Fully vaccinated people will also be able to visit personal care homes and limits on outdoor gatherings will increase.
Kumar said Manitoba's situation still isn't looking good — and he's particularly worried about the impact on kids under 12, who aren't yet eligible for any COVID-19 vaccines.
"I'm quite concerned that the next surge would be substantially focused on children."
Recovering from lockdown
For Mariana Cañadas, though, Wednesday's announcement was a relief.
The Winnipeg hairstylist had already suffered through two lockdowns during the pandemic, but the latest was her first as the owner of her own salon.
She said she can't wait to welcome customers back to Hair Bruja on Portage Avenue.
"I think the sooner I can start working, the better, so that things can just start moving along and [I can] just feel more of a [sense of] normalcy again," Cañadas said.
Since her salon was forced to close in early May, Cañadas has gotten by selling hair products online and using her line of credit. Because her business was new, she didn't qualify for many financial assistance programs — though she has now applied for Manitoba's bridge grant financial relief program, which was extended Tuesday.
Meanwhile, at Mercadito Latino Restaurant on Winnipeg's Sargent Avenue, Jesse Lemus said his parents are stocking up on sauces, beans and corn flour for when they're allowed to welcome customers back into their business, with capacity limits, on Saturday.
He said those customers are the reason the restaurant was able to weather the challenges brought on by the pandemic and ring in its 10th year in business this month.
"Over the years we've been able to build that clientele and during these tough times we've been able to see how helpful that was," Lemus said.
He said compared to this time last year, the restaurant has seen a drop in sales of somewhere between 25 and 50 per cent — and his family is hoping to make that up over the next few months through popular menu items like pupusas, tamales and tortilla soup.
Customers like Steve Best are also happy to see businesses reopen. The return of hair salons is at the top of the list of things he's most excited about in the latest public health order, Best said.
"I'm just glad that I can finally get a haircut again," he said, wearing a baseball cap as he walked out of Quest Musique on Portage Avenue after getting his guitar fixed.
"I'm starting to look like an old Beatle."
Gatherings still limited to outdoors
While Kumar is concerned about the latest restrictions, one thing that brings comfort is that it is summer and more people can be outside. Respiratory viruses transmit best indoors, so he was pleased to see the province maintain its limitations on gatherings inside private residences.
Visitors can only enter someone's home for brief essential activities, such as using a washroom.
"Getting outdoors, it's really a relatively safe kind of thing. So definitely that's where you want to loosen the restrictions the most," he said.
It's also the thing that Jacquie Stevenson said she was most looking forward to.
Sitting outside for lunch on Broadway in Winnipeg, Stevenson said she's happy to be allowed a few more people in her backyard — one of the first signs of a return to normal — now that up to 10 people are allowed to gather on outdoor private property (not including residents).
"I think this is something we're going to live with, but we have to find a way to live with it," she said.
With files from Holly Caruk and Ian Froese