Premier Brian Pallister has a vaccine-hesitancy problem. Could the Winnipeg Jets be the solution?
Pressure is building on the Pallister government to allow small numbers of fully vaccinated fans into one of the Winnipeg Jets second-round playoff games, much of it driven by a decision by the Ontario government to allow 550 fully vaccinated health-care workers in to watch Game 7 of the Toronto Maple Leafs-Montreal Canadiens series Monday night.
However, if the Pallister government is considering a similar move in advance of the second round of the playoffs, they're not letting on. All we have right now are the vague assurances from the premier that some sort of incentive program is coming soon.
Pallister promised an incentive program nearly two weeks ago and — not surprisingly — nothing has materialized. That's too bad, because two weeks ago would have been the perfect time to start competing for the hearts and minds of the hesitant; now, it's just another example of the "too little, too late" approach to pandemic management.
Pallister was invisible on Monday but at the daily COVID-19 briefing, chief provincial public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin declined to say one way or the other whether a proposal to return fans to Bell MTS Place was being seriously considered.
Roussin did acknowledge government will have to start rewarding Manitobans who quickly and willingly got vaccinated. Although he did not specify what kinds of rewards, at some point the Pallister government is going to have to consider reducing restrictions for the vaccinated and isolating the vaccine hesitant.
Last week, the province revised its timeline for getting first doses into the arms of at least 70 per cent of Manitobans, moving it from June 9 to the end of the month. The three-week delay was triggered by a significant slowing of first-dose uptake among the non-vaccinated.
In other words, we've pretty much exhausted the ranks of the willing and wildly enthusiastic. Given the decision to revise the date for completion of the 70 per cent target, it's pretty clear Manitoba does not have a supply problem; it has a vaccine-hesitancy problem.
Does returning fans to Jets games qualify as a responsible solution to that kind of problem? Allowing even a few hundred people to watch playoff hockey in person is a politically and epidemiologically risky proposition.
Last weekend, hundreds more Manitobans tested positive for COVID-19, more than 300 were in hospital and 107 are now receiving treatment in an ICU either here or in another province. Those are not the conditions needed to make a compelling argument for the removal of social or economic restrictions for any group.
But as Roussin acknowledged, at some point the government is going to have to start making some tough decisions on how much longer the vaccinated will have to suffer under the same restrictions as the non-vaccinated. That is certainly happening elsewhere in the world, where governments and businesses are starting to show their appreciation for willing vaccine recipients by offering rewards or incentives.
In the United States, incentives include everything from free beer, burgers and doughnuts to paid vacations and even a US$100-per-head cash reward. And then there is Ohio's "Vax-a-Million" lottery, which last week handed out a $1-million prize to a vaccinated adult and full college scholarships to vaccinated teenagers.
As persuasive as these prizes can be, what vaccinated people want more than anything is a return to normal life. And there are efforts to give them just that.
Madison Square Garden in Manhattan, for example, will not admit anyone to any event without a negative antigen test within six hours of the event, a negative PCR test within 14 days or proof of vaccination through the Excelsior Pass, the state's official vaccine passport.
In the United Kingdom, the English Premier League, which starts a new soccer season in late June, wants the government to introduce a vaccine passport so that it can be used to determine admission eligibility.
Efforts are also moving quickly to separate the vaccinated from the non-vaccinated when it comes to travel. Many countries within the European Union are slowly opening up their borders, but only to those who have completed their vaccinations, while airlines are working on their own vaccine-passport apps.
Continuing to restrict the hesitant while offering greater liberties to those who have embraced vaccinations is a political contentious scenario. But it is also quite inevitable.
Although the vaccine hesitant could very well keep us from reaching the herd-immunity threshold (75-80 per cent, depending on the source), they will always be in the gross minority. Limiting what they can do and where they can go may trigger the libertarian gag reflex in some political leaders, but it's likely to find great favour among the majority of citizens who willingly got vaccinated.
And who knows? It just might convince enough people to get with the program.
While allowing a small group of fully vaccinated fans to watch the Jets in person won't, on its own, tip the balance in the vaccine-hesitancy challenge, it will send a strong message to the unvaccinated: do your part or miss out on what could potentially be the biggest hockey celebration in the province's history.
Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.