Saskatoon

City of Saskatoon asks provincial government for special COVID-19 gathering restrictions

Saskatoon city council has voted unanimously in favour of asking Mayor Charlie Clark to write a letter to the provincial government, requesting that Saskatoon be given special gathering limits to slow the spread of COVID-19.

City asks for limits of 15 people for private gatherings, 150 people for public gatherings

Saskatoon city councillors will be asking the provincial government for special COVID-19 restriction rules. (Courtney Markewich/CBC)

Saskatoon city council has voted unanimously in favour of asking Mayor Charlie Clark to write a letter to the provincial government, requesting that Saskatoon be given special gathering limits to slow the spread of COVID-19.

A special council meeting was called Wednesday morning to discuss the proposed policy changes in the letter, which would only apply to Saskatoon.

A report from the city recommended that Saskatoon ask for a limit of 15 people at private gatherings, which includes gatherings at home.

Public indoor and outdoor gatherings would be limited to 150 people, or one-third of the building's capacity.

As well, a limit of 150 people would be placed on event facilities, casinos, bingo halls, theatres, art galleries, libraries and recreation centres under the recommendations. For smaller venues, a limit of one-third of the current capacity would be brought in.

The letter would ask the province for exemptions for events or venues that require proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours, including events at homes.

Urgent situation

In the meeting, Clark said he hoped that the provincial government will respond quickly.

"We've heard from the premier, we've heard from the province that it's important that cities work with their local medical health officers to figure out what to do to keep our communities safe," the mayor said.

"Given the urgency of the situation, given what we've known and heard, we have one of the most challenging situations in the country."

As of Wednesday, Saskatoon had 1,074 active cases of COVID-19, which is the highest number of cases in the province.

Some councillors wanted the motion to go even further, but were advised against that by medical personnel present in the meeting.

"I"ve got to say, I wish we could have a vaccine mandate and eliminate the testing requirement," said Coun. David Kirton (Ward 3).

"It rankles me to have to allow for that."

Economic impact

When asked if city administration had done any estimates as to what economic impact the changes might have, city manager Jeff Jorgenson said he believes the proposed measures may keep the city out of a lockdown, which would be very difficult for businesses.

"I think if we had taken more time to frame the recommendations today, instead of calling them restrictions, I think we could have equally framed them as 'how to stay open,'" he said.

"This gives business the ability to fully stay open."

There has been no timeline set as to when the provincial government will respond to the letter.

Pamela Goulden-McLeod, the City of Saskatoon's director of emergency planning, told CBC Radio's Saskatoon Morning the city's COVID-19 threat level is orange, or high risk. As a result, the city felt the need to act quickly.

Goulden-McLeod said that the city has a process for review that includes epidemiologists, the Saskatchewan Health Authority and the University of Saskatchewan. Every time a different threat level is reached, experts review potential actions and restrictions.

That process "doesn't automatically say we do everything at each level," she said. "It means that we review the measures and determine which ones is the most effective." 

Under strain

Meanwhile, two doctors who addressed council during the Wednesday meeting painted a bleak portrait of the state of health care in Saskatoon.

"The idea of COVID-zero is far too unrealistic and inappropriate," Dr. Jasmine Hasselback, medical health officer for the Saskatchewan Health Authority, told councillors.

"We absolutely do not want to end up in acute-care system collapse, where you cannot get services from the health system."

Dr. Mark Fenton, medical director of Saskatchewan's lung transplant program and one of the pandemic chiefs of staff for the province, said he agreed with the city's request for more restrictions.

"I think it's safe to say that over the last three months, our population has proven in this province that we need rules, and not encouragement, to control the spread of COVID-19," he said.

On Wednesday, Fenton said there were 105 patients in hospital in Saskatoon with COVID-19, including 31 patients in intensive care. That total represents 133 per cent of the city's normal baseline capacity for hospitals, Fenton said.

Dr. Hasselback said it would be a mistake for councillors to ask for too much from the province on a new health order, especially when it comes to denying negative COVID-19 tests in favour of mandatory vaccinations. She said there were many nuances to take into account.

"I don't think we want to get into … that degree of nitty-gritty" in the letter, she said.

"Practically, the practice consistently has been in many jurisdictions — certainly in Saskatchewan, but also elsewhere — there is a testing off-ramp."

Hasselback said it will likely be some time before things get back to normal. Delayed public health orders have resulted in many people in the community becoming sick, as well as a number of people who remain unvaccinated, she said.

Even if the situation slows down and plateaus, that could mean a prolonged time period with roughly 100 new cases a day, which would continue to seriously strain the health system.

New rules

Meanwhile, the City of Saskatoon said it's getting ready for the province's Oct. 1 deadline for mandatory proof of vaccination for gyms and leisure centres.

Proof of vaccination or a negative test will be required to access the fitness rooms, weight rooms and gymnasiums at all city-run leisure centres, including the Cosmo Civic Centre, Harry Bailey Aquatic Centre, Lakewood and Lawson Civic Centres, Saskatoon Field House and Shaw Centre.

The proof of vaccination can include a printed copy or screenshot of the person's MySaskHealthRecord vaccine certificate or the wallet card people received at the time of immunization.

As well, people can offer a negative test result that must be from the last 72 hours. All negative test results must be paid for by the person.

The vaccination rules would only apply to people 12 years and older.

Indoor arenas do not require proof of vaccination or a negative test for entry, but masks are required for players in dressing rooms as well as entering and leaving the arena, as well as spectators. 

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