Social gatherings banned, non-critical businesses closed as all of Manitoba moves to red alert level
Gyms, churches, many retail shops to close to help stem spread of COVID-19, alleviate pressure on health care
A strained health-care system and some of the worst COVID-19 trends in the country are behind the decision to force Manitoba into a weeks-long shutdown unlike what's been seen in the province since the pandemic emerged last spring.
"We are truly at a crossroads in our fight against this pandemic," said Manitoba's chief provincial public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin on Tuesday, when he and Premier Brian Pallister made the announcement.
Starting Thursday, Manitobans are banned from socializing with people outside their own household, as the province moves into the red — or critical — level of its pandemic response system.
The move includes a ban on faith-based gatherings, and masked-up gym work outs. Playing team sports or going to the salon or movies will also be out of the question. Non-essential retail shops will be closed but may do delivery and pickup. The same goes for restaurants.
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Schools and child-care centres will stay open because, despite hundreds of cases, there have been only a small number of confirmed transmission events or outbreaks in the K-12 system, said Roussin.
This "short, sharp set of restrictions" could last up to four weeks, said Roussin, and the move comes on the heels of a series of gradual measures this fall that have failed to stem the spread.
'We need to turn these numbers around'
In terms of new case counts, Manitoba has seen only triple-digit days these past three weeks. More cases were announced Tuesday than were reported in the first four months of the pandemic.
New provincial records for test positivity have become common and escalating rates of hospitalization are among the worst in the country.
There are over 200 COVID-19 patients in Manitoba hospitals — that number is about seven times higher than it was a month ago.
"We need to turn these numbers around, and we need to turn them around now," Roussin said.
Dr. Jill Horton of Winnipeg is one of hundreds of doctors who signed a letter to the province last week urging them to do more, and she praised the restrictions Tuesday.
"I think it's a critical and important first step," said Horton. "Thrilled to see that we're doing this today. A big sense of relief among me and my colleagues, and I think most Manitobans as well."
The widespread closures may be in effect for a minimum of two weeks but likely four, or two incubation periods of the virus, Roussin said.
They include a restriction on travelling to and from northern Manitoba.
Retail stores considered critical may remain open at 25 per cent capacity. Businesses essential to industries deemed critical, including agriculture and construction, can continue operating.
The orders don't affect regulated health professions such as massage therapy, physiotherapy or dentistry, Roussin said.
Small business boost
Pallister noted the lockdowns will deliver a serious blow to the local economy, but said it's time to "hit the circuit breaker."
As a result, the province is rolling out a series of financial supports for businesses impacted by the closures.
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Those include the Manitoba bridge grant, which will provide $5,000 before Christmas to businesses that apply, with the possibility of another $5,000 in the new year if necessary, Pallister said.
A provincial gap funding initiative — which Pallister said 10,000 small businesses that didn't qualify for the federal wage support previously made use of — will change. It's going from a conditional loan to a grant that employers will not have to pay back, Pallister said.
Care home crisis
The financial boosts and severe shutdowns came after weeks of phased measures that didn't have the desired effect in the Winnipeg metropolitan area.
Tighter restrictions came into effect in the province's Southern Health region Monday as it entered the red alert level, about a week after Winnipeg.
But test positivity rates continued to soar through those restrictions. Experts say anything higher than a three per cent test positivity rate warrants widespread closures. Manitoba hit a record 10.6 per cent on Tuesday.
Manitoba is also struggling to manage several deadly care home outbreaks akin to what Ontario and Quebec struggled with in the first wave.
The latest information from Revera, the for-profit company that runs the Maples Long Term Care Home and Parkview Place in Winnipeg, suggests over 40 residents have died between those two facilities. Dozens more staff and residents have tested positive.
The Winnipeg Regional Health Authority this week responded by sending a chief executive nurse of Deer Lodge Centre, Kathleen Klaasen, to be stationed at the Maples care home starting Tuesday.
The Canadian Red Cross is also sending staff to the care homes on Friday, and the health minister has ordered independent investigations into Parkview and Maples.
Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman and Opposition Leader Wab Kinew have both urged the province to consider calling in the military to help. Pallister and Roussin said Tuesday they won't be doing that right now.
'Bend the COVID curve'
In recent weeks, the government has been criticized for not being proactive enough in anticipation of the second wave.
On Tuesday, Pallister suggested more than once that the current wave of criticism is being largely directed at public health officials such as Roussin. Meanwhile, Horton's letter and others signed by hundreds of doctors, nurses and teachers were addressed to the premier and to the health and education ministers.
Pallister has also threatened to crack down on people ignoring public health orders and recently doubled fine amounts.
He repeated a stern warning he's issued several times lately, and he did so via a kind of sports analogy he frequently uses.
"We have a chance to bend the COVID curve, and we need everyone on the team. And if you don't want to be on the team, be prepared to pay for it."