Sask. Premier defends decision to end proof of vaccine mandate
Provincial mask mandate remains in effect until Feb. 28
As Saskatchewan lifts its proof-of-vaccination or negative test requirements to enter businesses, Premier Scott Moe says now is the right time to begin to end restrictions.
As of Monday, people will no longer need to provide vaccine proof to enter many facilities, including restaurants, liquor stores and theatres. The provincial health order that mandates masks be worn in indoor public spaces will expire on Feb. 28.
Speaking to CBC Radio's The Morning Edition Monday, Moe said that the current Omicron variant of COVID-19 is not as dangerous as previous variants.
"What we are seeing is a variant that is not as severe in general terms," said Moe.
"It can be as severe in individual terms, but not as severe in general terms in hospitalizing Saskatchewan residents."
At a physicians town hall meeting last week, doctors were told that Saskatchewan hospitals are now caring for the highest number of COVID-19 patients since the beginning of the pandemic. The presentation said hospital admissions are at high levels across all age groups and intensive care unit occupancy continues to be high.
In response, Premier Moe said the latest numbers released from the province show that less than half of the province's total COVID-19 patient load is people who were admitted for the illness, as opposed to incidental cases, where someone came in for something else and then was diagnosed with COVID-19.
"That's not saying that those that have COVID, but are in there for a different reason, don't require some additional care. And that's why we are making every effort to support our frontline health-care workers in our facilities across this province," said Moe.
"But when you compare those primary COVID hospitalizations to the primary COVID hospitalizations we would have had with a much more severe strain like Delta, those numbers were very different."
Premier Moe said the province will be increasingly reliant on at-home rapid tests to limit the spread of COVID-19. He expects people will stay at home if they test positive and wait until they no longer transmit the virus.
"I have faith in society and people that they most certainly are going to do that," said Moe.
"Saskatchewan people have been doing the right thing. They've been making the right decisions throughout this pandemic."
As far as convoy protesters are concerned, Moe said mandates across the country are divisive and that protesters deserve to be heard. However, he said that does not mean that people can flout the law.
"When that law is being broken, as we saw what happened on the bridge at Windsor yesterday, law enforcement officials do need to step in," he said.
"The RCMP, the Regina Police Service and others have done a remarkable job working with these convoy organizers to ensure that they are not in a position where they're breaking the law. What we're seeing in Ottawa is quite different."
City councillors in both Regina and Saskatoon have voted to end their proof-of-vaccination requirement in civic facilities.
The two cities differ on masking protocols: Regina city councillors chose to end theirs in a tight 6-4 vote, while the City of Saskatoon will continue theirs in leisure centres, city-owned rinks and on Saskatoon Transit.
The City of Prince Albert has opted to follow the province's lead and lift proof-of-vaccination restrictions on Monday and masking requirements on Feb. 28.
Long-term care following provincial lead on vaccines
The Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA) said it would remove the proof of vaccination mandate for "visitors and essential family support" in all facilities, including long-term care homes beginning Monday.
"This does not mean that the COVID-19 pandemic is over but indicates a necessary transition towards living with COVID," it said in a news release. "Transmission of COVID-19 and its variants will continue to pose a risk throughout the province."
However, people will still be required to mask while in all SHA facilities. People who don't will be denied entry.
LISTEN | Epidemiologist reviews safety after restrictions lift
Businesses, residents prepare for mandate removal
Some businesses that spoke with CBC News have been in favour of removing the vaccine mandate in the province.
"Being able to lift that one aspect of it, we're expecting that we'll see a return to increased revenues. It may take a while, but this is certainly really welcome news for us," Jim Bence, CEO of Hospitality Saskatchewan, told CBC News on Wednesday.
Not all residents are happy with the provincial shift away from mandates.
"We're still in the middle of the pandemic, so now is not the best time for us to lift the proof of vaccination," Idowu Akindele said on CBC News on Wednesday.
Premier Scott Moe suggested businesses looking to keep their proof of vaccination mandate in place should consult their lawyer because, without a public health order, they would not have legal protection.
A lawyer who specializes in labour, employment and human rights said businesses should still be able to impose vaccine mandates without fear of legal action.
"The issue for a private business comes down to whether asking for proof of vaccination violates the Saskatchewan Human Rights Code. There's nothing in the code that says you're prohibited from asking for proof of vaccination," Roger Lepage, a lawyer at Miller Thomson LLP in Regina, told CBC News on Thursday.
Schools navigate changes to COVID-19 policy
The province's two universities will hold on to the proof-of-vaccination policy while the province removes it across the province.
At the University of Regina, unvaccinated people or people who are undeclared will need to submit rapid antigen tests three times per week to the school until April 11, the last day of classes for the semester.
There is an exception for periodic visitors who are on campus for activities or events.
The University of Saskatchewan will require the same weekly tests until April 8.
Masks will be required at both schools: in Saskatoon until April 30 and in Regina until further notice.
Most Saskatchewan school divisions for elementary and secondary schools plan to lift COVID-19 restrictions, as suggested by the province, to the dismay of some parents and the relief of others.
"The families that I spoke to were relieved when I indicated that we could continue to provide isolation rooms if a student was to become sick; that we would continue to monitor for symptoms and require individuals who are displaying COVID-like symptoms to stay at home," Quintin Robertson, director of education for the Good Spirit School Division, said on Friday.
LISTEN | Regina teacher stressed by province's decision to end mandates