Manitoba·Analysis

So long, pandemic summer: The chill is back in Winnipeg

Winnipeg is finally facing up to the end of its unwitting holiday from the pandemic.

The orange order coming our way means it's time for collective action once again

Summer is finally over in Winnipeg, literally and figuratively. (Travis Golby/CBC)

Summer is finally over in Winnipeg, and not just because the kids are back in schools, the elms are turning yellow and the nights are cool enough again to warrant a fashionable jacket.

Rather, this city is finally facing up to the end of its unwitting holiday from the pandemic, which briefly decided to ignore the Manitoba capital in favour of afflicting smaller centres such as Steinbach, Brandon and rural areas around Niverville and Ritchot.

There was a point during the second week of July when nobody in the entire Winnipeg health region was infected with a known case of COVID-19.

As recently as July 12, Winnipeggers went about their business as if COVID-19 did not exist — and for all intents and purposes, it didn't, at least within an imaginary Red River bubble.

It was likely at this moment when many Winnipeggers let their guards down. After a stifling six-week lockdown followed by two-and-a-half more months of baby steps back to quasi-normalcy, it was only human to breathe more easily when the threat of the global pandemic appeared to suddenly dissipate.

In hindsight, it was only an interlude. Since that blissful moment in mid-July, COVID-19 finally decided to make a Winnipeg pit-stop.

During the first four months of the pandemic, 236 Winnipeggers caught the disease. In the ensuing two months, 576 Winnipeggers got sick.

And as of this morning, there remain 401 active cases of the disease within the city, including 44 people who were added to the tally on Friday alone.

Those are not devastating numbers for a city of 763,000 people. What concerns Manitoba's chief provincial public health officer is the way in which the disease is spreading.

At the end of August, when Brandon was the Canadian COVID-19 hotspot, most of the cases in Manitoba's second-largest city were connected to other known cases in what Dr. Brent Roussin described as clusters.

Over the past week, roughly a quarter of Winnipeg's new cases have no known transmission chain whatsoever, meaning the disease is spreading in a manner that cannot be controlled by the standard epidemiological practice of identifying known contacts and isolating them.

This is the main reason Roussin finally announced on Friday Winnipeg will soon be subject to more restrictive means of combating COVID-19.

The mandatory mask mandate that comes into effect in all indoor public places on Monday is intended to mitigate the main way the disease spreads: through large droplets transmitted between people spending time close together indoors.

In case you've spent the past seven months ducking out of Pandemic Science 101, a non-medical mask only provides a little bit of protection to the wearer. But that very same cloth mask does a reasonably good job of protecting other people from the droplets you spray into the air.

In other words, when everyone wears masks indoors, the chances of anyone getting sick drops significantly. And when there are fewer people indoors, there are fewer people to potentially sicken — or track down, if somebody does get sick.

This is why Roussin also dropped the maximum gathering size in Winnipeg to 10 people, indoors or outside, starting at the witching hour on Monday.

This will be terribly inconvenient to any Winnipegger who booked a wedding next week or was planning a large-scale family dinner on Thanksgiving.

At the same time, Roussin was dropping hints about bringing back more pandemic restrictions for several weeks before Friday's announcement Winnipeg and its bedroom municipalities are going orange.

The only sure-fire way to avoid event-planning disappointment during a global pandemic is to plan no events at all. 

The pandemic is not going anywhere, at least not until the widespread distribution of an effective vaccine. Some optimists within the fields of pharmacology and epidemiology believe that's possible some time in the latter half of next year. 

A more pragmatic outlook would be to assume it will take as long as four years to develop a vaccine for the virus. Expect the worst, and you will never be disappointed. You may even be pleasantly surprised.

At the risk of sounding like a harbinger of doom, there is no guarantee weddings with 50 people will be permitted in Winnipeg in September 2021. There's no guarantee the restaurant that you booked to cater that wedding will survive the next year on takeout business and distanced dining. 

Heck, depending on what happens in the United States after November's presidential election, there's no guarantee any aspect of the Canadian economy will survive the winter unscathed.

Winnipeggers have no control over geopolitics. We can only hope to bend and not break in the winds heading our way.

What we can control is how we respond to the task Roussin just placed in front of us: to wash our hands, reduce the number of people we see on a daily basis, keep away from strangers and wear masks when we can not.

While it's tempting to blame bar hoppers for Winnipeg's pandemic setback, there really is no point. 

All we need to do is remember the pandemic holiday is over. That chill we felt in April is back, but this time we know how to deal with it.

A little collective action goes a long way.

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