Sask. orders northern residents to stay in their home communities
Premier Scott Moe announced tightened travel restrictions for northern residents Thursday
Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe announced tightened COVID-19-related travel restrictions for people living in the province's north Thursday, including an order requiring northern residents to remain in their local communities and to practise physical distancing.
Exceptions will only be made for critical items like collecting groceries and medical appointments.
The updated public health order also restricts all non-critical travel (including those with primary residences in the region) into and out of a broad swath of land known as the Northern Saskatchewan Administrative District, which covers nearly half of the province but has a low population relative to the rest of Saskatchewan.
Travel between northern communities is also restricted, though some exceptions are being made.
"Travel to and from La Ronge and Stony Rapids from outside the [district] is allowed, but individuals are not permitted to stop in any other community," according to a government release issued Thursday. "Travel related to the delivery of essential services will continue to be permitted."
Here's a map showing the region affected by the restrictions. Don't see it? Click here.
Moe said the new laws came at the request of northern mayors and leaders.
The premier singled out the northwest part of the district, including La Loche.
"We are asking people to stay at home, stay in their community, in particular in those communities in the northwest," he said. "This is one area of Saskatchewan where if you can stay at home, not just in your community, but at home, we're asking you to do so. It works in controlling this virus."
The province also announced new funding to help those communities combat the spread of the virus, including $350,000 to help establish, staff and maintain community checkpoints.
A separate $20,000 will go to La Loche to help foster food security and launch educational programs to encourage safe behaviour during the pandemic.
Premier had hinted at stronger restrictions
Thursday's news was foreshadowed a day earlier.
Moe said Wednesday that Minister of Government Relations Lori Carr was on a call with leaders in northern communities. The comment came in response to a question about a potential "next step" in travel restrictions.
"The conversation specific to the La Loche region is how can we actually enhance the protection that we have in that particular area," Moe said. "So there will be more to come, likely within the next 24 to 48 hours, on what the longer-term travel restrictions will look like in the north."
Moe said the restrictions might relax in other areas "where we do not have a large number of positive cases at this point in time."
No such relaxation was announced Thursday.
As of Thursday, there were 58 cases overall in the far north, including 39 cases in La Loche.
That includes the sixth person to die from complications from the virus: 85-year-old Agnes McDonald, a resident of La Loche Health Centre. She was the second resident of the facility to die in connection with COVID-19.
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One new case in La Loche was announced Thursday.
The province is sending between 50 and 100 more health workers to the north to help with testing, assessment and contact tracing. Mobile and door-to-door testing is also planned and anyone in the area who wants to get tested will get tested.
The province has also set aside social housing units for people who need to self-isolate.
La Loche also now has a portable GeneXpert testing machine that allows for speedy testing.
Ban on non-critical travel
Dr. Saqib Shahab, Saskatchewan's chief medical health officer, first announced the outbreak in La Loche on April 17. One staff member and one resident at La Loche Health Centre had tested positive for the virus. That number has since grown to five: two workers and three long-term care residents.
One week later, Shahab and Moe announced a new public health order restricting all non-critical travel into northern Saskatchewan. The order also gave northern leaders full legal authority to enforce highway checkpoints.
Shahab also strongly recommended against any non-essential travel between communities within northern Saskatchewan. Thursday's announcement effectively makes that law.
Saskatchewan NDP Leader Ryan Meili, speaking eariler in the day Thursday during his daily news conference, was close to the mark when suggesting how restrictions might be tightened in the north.
"If you're discovering that you've got lots of unnecessary travel happening — despite it being a strong recommendation and those checkpoints are in place — then we might need to go to stronger measures and actual prohibitions," Meili said.