Manitoba's emergency measures 'could get more restrictive' during COVID-19 pandemic, experts say

Manitoba's state of emergency and new restrictions on groups larger than 50 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic may seem strict to some, but a political scientist says that could be the tip of the iceberg.

'Provinces aren't going for the full sledgehammer right off the bat,' says political scientist

Businesses around Winnipeg like The Forks Market, seen here on March 18, are already closing down in response to COVID-19. But on Friday, the province announced more measures to curb the spread of the pandemic. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

Manitoba's state of emergency and new restrictions on gathering in groups larger than 50 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic may seem strict, but a political scientist says they could be the tip of the iceberg.

Leah West, an international affairs lecturer at Carleton University, says provinces like Manitoba are able to access a great deal of power in emergency situations, which could be exerted if the pandemic becomes more difficult to control.

"Provinces aren't going for the full sledgehammer right off the bat," she said.

"It could get more restrictive ... and we've seen that across the board" in other jurisdictions, she said.

On Friday, the province announced it was declaring a 30-day state of emergency under Manitoba's Emergency Measures Act. The province said it is also making orders through the Public Health Act to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba's chief public health officer, said public gatherings will be restricted to 50 people or less at any indoor or outdoor place, including places of worship and family events.

All bingo and gaming events, as well as gyms and wellness centres, were ordered to close immediately.

The province is also working to reduce the number of people in restaurants, bars and movie theatres, by limiting the number of people allowed in to 50 or half the establishment's capacity — whichever is less.

Public health inspectors and municipal law enforcement could be enlisted to enforce the public health order, Roussin says.

After Friday afternoon, Manitobans who aren't heeding public health orders will be asked to comply. If they don't, they could be charged or even face jail time.

Businesses around Winnipeg are closing in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the province ordered the closure of gyms on Friday. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

"This is not something we take lightly. We respect the individual rights and freedoms of all our citizens," said Premier Brian Pallister.

"However, we we must continue to use every tool we have in our possible availability to flatten the curve here and to protect and do our part to protect all Manitobans."

West says the Manitoba government hasn't yet invoked all of the powers that it could potentially under the Emergency Measures Act.

"They can continue to make more orders until there's nothing left for them to do, or [the emergency] is beyond their control," she said.

Daniel Henstra, an associate professor of political science at the University of Waterloo, says states of emergency are called in "extraordinary circumstances" to allow governments to react quickly in the face of rapidly changing situations.

"It just gives the government a whole lot of decision-making power that it could use to act very quickly to contain the emergency," he said.

What is the Emergency Measures Act?

The Emergency Measures Act can be used to declare a state of emergency for up to 30 days.

It essentially centralizes decision-making authority with the premier and cabinet and allows them to make swift executive decisions — some of which the government wouldn't necessarily be able to do under the law.

For example, under the act, the province could take over personal or private property to use as a staging ground for a response. That could mean setting up temporary shelters or hospitals.

"It could change very quickly to a situation where they have to mobilize resources or take over facilities, or declare certain services to be critical so that they can get them to deliver a service in certain areas," Henstra said.

During a state of emergency, the province is able to prohibit travel or punish people who aren't heeding public health orders — something Roussin said Friday is a possibility.

The province could also appropriate economic resources or reallocate money within its budget without having the approval of the legislature.

West adds the province could make stricter public health orders, like closing down more businesses.

"Those kinds of things are within the purview of the provincial government, but they haven't gone that far yet," she said.

"They're still in the provincial tool belt."