Winnipeg's code red restrictions can bring pandemic fatigue — here's how to cope

With new code red restrictions being enforced in Winnipeg starting today, psychologists give tips on how to cope when it comes to our mental health.

Dr. Andrea Piotrowski and Dr. Renee El-Gabalawy give advice on how to cope with more restrictions

A nearly empty Portage Avenue intersection during the early weeks of the coronavirus pandemic. Starting Nov. 2, many businesses in Winnipeg will shut down for two weeks for code red restrictions. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

With code red restrictions in effect Monday in Winnipeg, some in the city might be feeling frustrated, anxious and isolated as they brace for tougher measures and as more businesses shut down for the next two weeks.

On Friday, Manitoba public health officials announced that Winnipeg and surrounding areas would enter the highest level — red, or critical — on the province's pandemic response system starting Monday, as a record-breaking 480 new cases of COVID-19 were announced.

Chief Provincial Public Health Officer Dr. Brent Roussin said the code red restrictions will be in place for Winnipeg for at least two weeks. That means: 

  • Movie theatres, museums, concert halls, libraries, sports facilities and restaurant dining rooms are closed. Restaurants may still offer takeout and delivery services.
  • Fitness facilities are reduced to 25 per cent capacity and masks are mandatory while exercising.
  • Retail stores must operate at 25 per cent capacity or five people, whichever is higher.
  • Elective and non-urgent surgeries and diagnostic procedures are suspended.
  • Visitation at hospitals are suspended, with case-by-case exceptions for patients receiving end-of-life care, patients in labour and pediatric patients.
  • Community, cultural and faith-based gatherings are limited to 15 per cent capacity or 100 people, whichever is lower. 

In addition to these measures in place for Winnipeg, the rest of Manitoba is at the orange, or restricted level — that means gathering sizes have a limit of five and public-facing businesses must have reduced capacity.

Heightened exhaustion and worry

Dr. Andrea Piotrowski, a clinical psychologist with Shared Health's Clinical Health Psychology Program, says the recent COVID-19 trends can create heightened feelings of worry and anxiety.

"Going up to 480 in one day was quite a shock," she said. "We went from being one of the best provinces in our numbers to one of the worst provinces in terms of the chance of people getting COVID, so certainly there is a lot of anxiety with regards to that." 

Piotrowski said people can be exhausted, worried about staying employed and paying bills and how they'll cope.

Dr. Renee El-Gabalawy, another clinical psychologist with Shared Health and an assistant professor at the University of Manitoba's department of clinical psychology and anesthesiology, says while some might be relieved by the new rules, others might experience increased stress. 

Dr. Renee El-Gabalawy, a clinical psychologist with Shared Health and a professor at the University of Manitoba, is leading a cross-Canada study on COVID-19 and its impact on mental health. (Submitted by Dr. Renee El-Gabalawy)

"Unfortunately for others, this may result in elevated mental health systems due to further financial concerns, longer work hours and stress at work, particularly for our front-line workers, elevated isolation and increased difficulty managing health conditions," she said.

El-Gabalawy said people are losing their regular routine, daily activities and social interactions, so coming up with creative solutions to stay healthy and find support is key.

Here are some tips provided by both Piotrowski and El-Gabalawy. 

Building a healthy routine

Piotrowski and El-Gabalawy said an effective way to cope with the pandemic and further restrictive measures is to build a routine with healthy habits — with regular exercise, an active lifestyle and a balanced diet.

Piotrowski said this is called behavioural activation and it should be prioritized.

"In fact, it functions as an antidepressant system," she said. "Sitting on the couch and watching TV, that's fine to do that a little bit. But then you become really lethargic and you don't really feel like doing anything, you kind of get stuck in a bit of a rut."

"So [it's about] looking at how I can schedule my day to make sure that I'm doing things and getting out," said Piotrowski.

El-Gabalawy said that also includes getting good sleep, limiting news consumption and limiting substance use.

Maintaining social connections

El-Gabalawy said it's crucial to maintain social connections and a support network, even if it's through virtual means. 

"One of the most significant components for some people of the measures in place is they feel very socially isolated from the people they normally spend a lot of time with, whether it's close friends, colleagues, family," she said. 

"It's really important to be creative about connecting with people, virtually, getting that social support because it will be protective for your mental health and even your physical health."

Piotrowski said people should reach out for professional help if they need it and use resources such as Canada's Wellness Together site and the province's virtual therapy program.

Seeing the silver lining

As Winnipeg moves through stricter measures, El-Gabalawy and Piotrowski said it's important to have a positive mindset and focus on things we can control.

Piotrowski suggests people practise gratitude by focusing on what's going well and identify ways to help others, which in turn, makes them feel better, she said.

On top of that, she said it's important to remember that the world has been through pandemics in the past. 

Dr. Andrea Piotrowski is a clinical psychologist with Shared Health. (Submitted by Dr. Andrea Piotrowski )

"We've done this," she said. "Sometimes we feel like we're not in control. But just because we don't feel like we're in control, it doesn't mean that everything is out of control." 

El-Gabalawy is currently leading a cross-Canada study on the mental health impacts of COVID-19. She said almost all of the people she surveyed spoke of a silver lining.

"The most common one was becoming closer to their families and reaching out to friends," she said. "Sort of enhancing that social connectedness in ways that they really hadn't focused on before."

El-Gabalawy said the other silver linings identified were the positive impacts the pandemic has had on the environment and on people's financial savings from not going out.

"As much as this pandemic has been incredibly hard for Manitobans and people worldwide, the hope is there will be and continue to be silver linings in this," she said.


Peggy Lam


Peggy is a reporter for CBC News, based in Vancouver. She's interested in stories about medicine, health care and accountability. She has a master's degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in human geography. You can reach her at