Saskatchewan·Analysis

Sask. holds line on less-stringent restrictions than other Prairie provinces

Saskatchewan has extended COVID-19 restrictions for three more weeks and its premier says no additional measures are needed.

'We don't require additional measures,' says Premier Moe

Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe has said he believes the province should name organizations that are ticketed for allegedly breaching public health orders. But according to the Ministry of Health, privacy laws prevent the province from naming individual people. (Germain Wilson/CBC)

Saskatchewan has extended COVID-19 restrictions for three more weeks and its premier says no additional measures are needed.

The province continues to allow its residents access to a variety of activities and dining options prohibited in other provinces.

Saskatchewan residents can still attend a worship service, go to a restaurant or bar, take in a movie and get a haircut. Despite this, the government and its chief medical health officer, Dr. Saqib Shahab, have still received some criticism from groups opposed to the restrictions that are in place. 

On Jan. 23, less than a dozen protesters stood outside Shahab's Regina home with signs.

Premier Scott Moe referred to the group as "idiots."

In recent months, protesters have criticized restrictions, mask mandates and government control, and questioned the science behind the COVID-19 test and the threat the virus poses.

Moe has pledged not to enter a second lockdown with the same closures of restaurants and non-essential businesses that occurred last spring.

He has said residents need to do their part to keep transmission low while the province waits to get more people vaccinated.

Saskatchewan has distributed 107 per cent as many vaccine doses as it has been allotted, with the overage coming from getting more doses than expected out of some vials. A total of 35,091 doses have been administered, but 4,571 people — fewer than 0.4 per cent of the population — have received a full two-dose vaccination. 

Vaccinations are expected to remain slow over the next couple of weeks as the country's two approved vaccine manufacturers have scaled back shipments.

Saskatchewan's new case numbers had been dropping steadily, but Friday saw another spike with 328 new cases reported. Saskatchewan continues to lead the country in per-capita weekly rate of new cases.

January has been the deadliest month of the pandemic in the province. As of Friday there had been 139 COVID-related deaths, an average of nearly five per day. In 2020, 153 people died over the 10 months of the pandemic.

Saskatchewan continues to allow its residents access to more amenities and activities than other provinces.

The province closed casinos and bingo halls in December, but people can still go to the gym, attend a movie, visit a museum and shop where they please, as long as they wear a mask.

Alberta continues to have a mandatory work-from-home order and has closed gyms, fitness centres and movie theatres.

This week, Manitoba introduced a mandatory two-week self-isolation for anyone entering the province by land or air.

"These measures are necessary to protect us from a more deadly version of the coronavirus that is not, as some would sadly hope, a short-term thing," said Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister.

The travel restriction is designed to stop non-essential travel and applies to people visiting the province and returning Manitobans.

Pallister said the order is in response to the "real danger" of COVID-19 variants,

When asked about the concern over variants in Saskatchewan, Shahab said he would "not be surprised" to see variants in the province, but that they do not change precautions that people should be taking to prevent transmission.

As for a similar travel isolation policy, Shahab said "at the moment it is not practical," citing the number of people who live in border communities and have to travel frequently for work.

"The safest measures are what we are doing at the moment," Shahab said.

Visiting a restaurant vs. visiting a home

On Tuesday, Shahab was asked why the province allows people from different households to meet at a restaurant, but doesn't allow separate households to be in the same "bubble."

In December, the government restricted in-home gatherings to household only.

Shahab said four people from different households sitting at the same table at a restaurant is a "moderate risk" for transmission.

"{If] you go with your mask on, you sit at a table for you. You chat with your mask on. You have your meal and drink. You can linger with your mask on there, maybe an hour, hour and a half. Put your mask on and you leave. It's a moderate risk."

He said if the same four people meet in a house instead of a restaurant, "the transmission risk is higher."

Shahab said medical health officers see transmission in both restaurants and household settings.

He said before Dec. 14, people could meet up to three households, but were having multiple gatherings of up to 15 people.

"That was driving numbers up," he said.

Shahab said even "well-intentioned" home gatherings have resulted in transmission because they are not structured and people can "linger for many hours."

He said if case numbers drop, the restrictions may be eased to allow for two-household bubbles.

Saskatchewan led all other provinces in the rate of new cases over seven days for a second straight week. (Government of Canada)

Shahab said the government monitors transmission in bars and restaurants.

He said in outbreak situations "half the people are doing everything right," but the transmission happened when people moved from table to table, mingled, and then exposed people "who are doing everything right."

"They infect other tables, each other, staff, and it becomes a large outbreak."

Shahab said those outbreaks "snowball."

He said the outbreaks have "spilled into daycares, schools and the workplace."

"It leads to hundreds of cases and this really is something that really sets us all back."

Shahab said the "vast majority of business owners are complying."

This week the province fined three restaurants, Crackers and the Crazy Cactus in Saskatoon and Stats Cocktails and Dreams in Regina, $14,000 each for non-compliance with public health orders.

On Tuesday, Opposition Leader Ryan Meili called for bars to be closed and limited to takeout only.

"It would make perfect sense to close down bars," Meili said. "That's what every other province with serious levels of cases has done, with cases far less than we have."

Bars and restaurants

Saskatchewan's current regulations allow bars and restaurants to stay open to customers, with conditions including:

  • Limit of four per table.
  • Three-metre distance between tables if there are no barriers.
  • Alcohol cannot be served after 10 p.m. CST.
  • No dance floor.
  • Guest list maintained.

Saskatchewan and B.C. still allow customers to dine-in. 

In B.C., the government has asked people to dine with their household for a maximum of six at a table.

Nightclubs have not been able to operate in Alberta since March. The province implemented an alcohol curfew in November.

Alberta closed restaurants to in-person service in December and Manitoba restricted service to take-out or delivery only on Nov. 12.

Ontario has prohibited in-person dining.

Quebec recently extended its current restrictions, which include no in-person dining and an 8 p.m. curfew until Feb. 8. Restaurants are prohibited from offering takeout past 7:30 p.m.

On Jan. 19, New Brunswick moved its most populous cities into the "red zone", closing restaurants to in-person service. Under that phase gyms, hairdressers and entertainment centres have to close and everyone must stick to a single-household bubble.

At the time, New Brunswick reported 31 new cases of COVID-19 and had 13 total deaths due to COVID-19.

Survey says... more restrictions needed

A recent survey of more than 1,500 Saskatchewan people said the government's current COVID-19 restrictions don't go far enough.

The Saskatchewan Population Health and Evaluation Research Unit (SPHERU) found 67 per cent of respondents said the current rules are insufficient.

About 25 per cent said they "are about right," and only nine per cent of respondents said the government restrictions "go too far."

The survey is part of an ongoing SPHERU study on COVID-19 and behaviour. The latest round was conducted between Nov. 23, 2020 and Jan. 2, 2021, and involved 1,544 people.

On Tuesday, Shahab said the government's restrictions "try to strike a fine balance between minimizing cases, as long as the guidelines are followed, and letting people work [and] enjoy other amenities as much as possible."

"We don't require additional measures in this province," Moe said.

Saskatchewan has used up its supply of covid-19 vaccines. While it waits on more, expected next week -- what else is it doing to deal with the pandemic? CBC's political reporter Adam Hunter and Leader Post columnist Murray Mandryk weigh in. 10:33

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Adam Hunter

Journalist

Adam Hunter is the provincial affairs reporter at CBC Saskatchewan, based in Regina. He has been with CBC for more than 14 years. Follow him on Twitter @AHiddyCBC. Contact him: adam.hunter@cbc.ca

with files from CBC's Jason Warick and CBC News

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