Manitoba is beefing up restrictions in an attempt to knock down surging COVID-19 cases, just as hospital ICUs fill up and the test positivity rate skyrockets.
Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba’s chief public health officer, announced strict new public health orders Friday night, hours after health officials announced 502 new cases of the virus and raised the alarm about a rapid increase of sick Manitobans being admitted to critical care units.
"Today's case numbers are certainly going in that wrong direction," said Roussin, noting more stringent restrictions will take effect at 12:01 a.m. Sunday, and will last for three weeks.
"In the latter part of the week, we have seen a dramatic rise in cases, and that's translating into a dramatic rise in ICU numbers. These are some of the highest daily numbers we have seen in the 15 months. We have to take these strong actions now to protect our health-care system, to protect Manitobans.
"Everyone has that role to play now."
The new restrictions include shutting all restaurants, patios, and bars to in-person dining and dropping outdoor gathering numbers on public property to five people, including household members.
All gyms and fitness centres will have to close, as well as religious, community and cultural gatherings, museums, galleries and libraries, personal services, indoor sports and recreation, day camps, and dance, theatre and music schools.
Retail stores, markets, garden centres and malls can still be open, but will be reduced to 10 per cent capacity up to 100 people, down from 25 per cent capacity or a maximum of 250 people.
Roussin said at this point schools won't be affected by new restrictions, but said they continue to monitor it and will be announce something about it "in the near future."
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City suspends programs, closes facilities
The City of Winnipeg said Friday it was immediately suspending its recreation and leisure programs, including Leisure Guide programming; and closing all city-owned and operated recreation facilities, gyms, indoor pools, arenas, and libraries effective end of regular operations tonight, and until further notice.
No layoffs are planned because employees would be redeployed, the city said.
Effective Sunday, groups larger than five people will not be permitted in city parks or on athletic fields, the city said.
City officials will review the formal public health orders to determine whether if other services need to be curtailed..
"We know we all have to make personal choices to reduce the amount of contacts that are outside our household and we need to act now. I know Manitobans have done this before, and I know we have been doing it for 14 months, but we need to continue our efforts to keep these numbers down.
"We need to bring down these numbers... Manitobans are exhausted, but we have it in us to do this one last time."
NDP Leader Wab Kinew spoke after Roussin, saying "our province is in a crisis.
"Everybody in Manitoba needs to come together and not only listen to the rules Dr. Roussin has laid out, but also to observe the spirit of what he is trying to convey to us."
Manitoba’s COVID-19 case counts have exceeded 200 daily for the past week, and hit 363 Thursday before skyrocketing to 502 Friday — the second-highest single-day total in the province. On Nov. 23, at the height of the second wave, 546 cases were reported.
Winnipeg's test positivity rate also hit 11.3 per cent — the highest since early January — while Manitoba sat at 9.6 per cent. The majority of Friday's cases (389) were in Winnipeg, with 30 in Interlake–Eastern; 17 in the north; 32 cases in Prairie Mountain; and 34 in Southern health.
Public health officials also announced another death from COVID-19, a man in his 50s from the Southern health region, bringing the province's death toll to 987.
COVID case numbers have also sharply jumped among First Nations people.
The Manitoba First Nations COVID-19 Pandemic Response Team announced on Friday there have been 433 new cases on and off reserve in the past week with six more deaths. Currently, of the 201 Manitobans in hospital being treated, 51 are First Nation people while 22 of the 56 ICU patients are First Nation.
Dr. Anand Kumar, an emergency room physician who has been outspoken about the need for the province to lock down before numbers spiral out of control, said he's "glad they have implemented these restrictions.
"It's not as far as I'd like, but it's a good start... there could have been room to be even more aggressive. They said little about schools. They have to figure that out by Monday," said Kumar.
"I would have closed non-essential businesses. This is the third shutdown of businesses. They've done everything we've asked of them and they have every right to be furious that a better plan has not been adopted."
The increased restrictions were called "understandable" by Loren Remillard, president and CEO of the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce, but he emphasized that business owners feel shafted.
"It’s just been closure upon closure, and insufficient aid," he said.
"Businesses have done everything that has been asked of them, and then some."
Shaun Jeffrey, CEO of the Manitoba Restaurant and Foodservices Association, said his sector is suffering.
"This is decimation," said Jeffrey just minutes after restaurant owners heard, during their busy dinner period, that they would have to close after Saturday night for three weeks.
"Operators say if they close us, we won’t survive this. They are already teetering. And they do this at 6 p.m., when people are serving their customers?
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"You have servers crying tonight. How would you feel if for six months you only got 25 per cent of your paycheque?"
Earlier in the day, Premier Brian Pallister, who held a news conference after being criticized for not taking questions from reporters as case counts rose, said the additional restrictions are being implemented out of "an abundance of caution."
"They are necessary in order for us to make sure that we do not allow ourselves to impose an additional burden on our health-care system that is one that we cannot sustain," Pallister said.
"Although we are expecting and hoping that the number of vaccines available to Manitobans will be rising remarkably over the next few weeks, we are not there yet," the premier said. "This false sense of security with the positive announcements about more vaccines can be very dangerous if we believe that to be true."
— with files from Carol Sanders
Kevin Rollason Reporter
Kevin Rollason is one of the more versatile reporters at the Winnipeg Free Press.
Whether it is covering city hall, the law courts, or general reporting, Rollason can be counted on to not only answer the 5 Ws — Who, What, When, Where and Why — but to do it in an interesting and accessible way for readers.