Manitoba is scrapping its mask mandate in the most significant scaling down of restrictions of the pandemic as it prepares to learn to live with COVID-19.

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Manitoba is scrapping its mask mandate in the most significant scaling down of restrictions of the pandemic as it prepares to learn to live with COVID-19.

Face coverings will no longer be required, but will be recommended, in indoor public spaces, the province's top doctor announced Tuesday.

The change is part of loosened public-health orders that will take effect Saturday. The province is rolling back the mandatory vaccination requirement for people who go to movie theatres and museums, and lifting all restrictions on indoor and outdoor public gatherings, retail businesses, gyms, salons and libraries.

"The continued shutting down of our economy and our society is not realistic in the long term. We have to learn how to live with COVID, as well as the other endemic respiratory viruses, as we move forward," chief provincial public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin said.

The indoor mask mandate should have been the last restriction lifted, Winnipeg epidemiologist Cynthia Carr said.

"I personally would feel better if the mask mandate was the last thing to go, because it might be, and I don't know this, but it might be that people who didn't get vaccinated might also be the most likely to not wear a mask, and then they are not protected at all," Carr said.

We have to learn how to live with COVID, says chief provincial public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin. (Alex Lupul / Winnipeg Free Press)

We have to learn how to live with COVID, says chief provincial public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin. (Alex Lupul / Winnipeg Free Press)

Carr is the co-chair of the Protect MB campaign advisory committee, but she said she wasn't asked for input on the public-health orders. She said she would prefer to see a more gradual loosening with the mask mandate still in place until public-health officials see how the delta variant continues to spread after school starts in September.

Major changes effective Aug. 7

No limit to people who may attend:

• indoor or outdoor gatherings at private residences
• gyms and fitness centres
• libraries
 personal services (such as hair and nail salons)
• day camps
• retail, markets, garden centres and shopping malls
• restaurants, bars and food courts (no immunization requirement)
• casinos and bingo halls (limited to fully vaccinated people)
• professional sports/performing arts events (limited to fully vaccinated people)
• horse and auto racing (limited to fully vaccinated people)

Mask use

Masks are no longer required but are strongly recommended in indoor public settings for everyone who is not fully immunized, including children under 12.

No limit to people who may attend:

• indoor or outdoor gatherings at private residences
• gyms and fitness centres
• libraries
 personal services (such as hair and nail salons)
• day camps
• retail, markets, garden centres and shopping malls
• restaurants, bars and food courts (no immunization requirement)
• casinos and bingo halls (limited to fully vaccinated people)
• professional sports/performing arts events (limited to fully vaccinated people)
• horse and auto racing (limited to fully vaccinated people)

Mask use

Masks are no longer required but are strongly recommended in indoor public settings for everyone who is not fully immunized, including children under 12.

Quarantine

• Unvaccinated people who are close contacts with a COVID-19 case are required to complete a 14-day self-isolation. People who are both fully vaccinated and asymptomatic are exempt from quarantine.

Gatherings and events

• Capacity at private events (such as weddings, funerals, banquets, receptions and self-help groups) are limited to 50 people or 50 per cent capacity, whichever is larger.
• Dance floors remain closed and activities that encourage close gathering and mingling are not recommended.
• Indoor community, cultural and religious gatherings are limited to 150 people or 50 per cent capacity, whichever is larger.
• Outdoor community, cultural and religious gatherings are limited to 1,500 people or 50 per cent capacity of the place, whichever is lesser.
• Events with more than 1,500 fully immunized participants may be permitted with a plan approved by the public health office.
• In most cases, unvaccinated children under 12 may attend if accompanied by fully vaccinated household members.

Sports/recreation

• No limit on participants, including games, practices, competitions/tournaments, day camps, rehearsals and recitals. Spectator capacity limited to 50 per cent, including other teams who are not active on the field at play. This applies to both indoor and outdoor venues. Larger capacity events may be permitted with a plan approved by public health.

Overnight camps

• Permitted with camper cohorts limited to 15 participants, which no activities or mingling between cohorts and a plan approved by public health.

— source: Province of Manitoba

"We don't want to see unnecessary cases and suffering amongst any Manitobans that perhaps could have been mitigated by the continued mask use."

Under the new rules, restaurants and bars will no longer need to limit the number of people allowed at one table, and people from different households will be able to dine together, but will be expected not to mingle with diners at other tables. Employers will no longer be required to accommodate remote work.

Roussin and Premier Brian Pallister tied their announcement to increased vaccination rates in the province. Eighty per cent of eligible Manitobans have received a first dose of COVID-19 vaccine, and 71 per cent have had both doses.

Casinos, bingo halls, concert halls and professional sports games will require patrons to be fully vaccinated, but they can operate at full capacity. People won't need to be vaccinated to attend movie theatres or museums, but those facilities will only be allowed to open at half-capacity.

The next phase of the plan is set for Sept. 6 and required 75 per cent, or about 25,000 more people, to have two vaccine doses.

The indoor mask mandate should have been the last restriction lifted, says Winnipeg epidemiologist Cynthia Carr. (Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press files)

The indoor mask mandate should have been the last restriction lifted, says Winnipeg epidemiologist Cynthia Carr. (Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press files)

The plan to reopen schools, considering children under 12 aren't eligible to be vaccinated, is expected to be unveiled Thursday.

The province hasn't yet released its projections to show how the more contagious delta variant is expected to affect the province, as other jurisdictions head into a fourth wave.

The province will consider reinstating public health restrictions in certain areas of Manitoba depending on viral transmission, Roussin said. On Tuesday, 22 COVID-19 cases were announced and the provincewide test positivity rate was 2.6 per cent.

Prairie Mountain, which includes Brandon, was the first health region in Manitoba to make masks mandatory indoors in late August 2020. Masks have never been required in outdoor public places under provincial rules.

It will be up to individuals to decide if they want to wear masks, Roussin said. 

"Certainly, it's a strong recommendation, especially those at higher risk, especially those who are unvaccinated," Roussin said.

Private businesses can also require masks to be worn, if they choose. Some small businesses took to social media Tuesday to inform customers masks will still be mandatory on their premises. 

Masks will still be required in all city facilities and on Winnipeg Transit. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Masks will still be required in all city facilities and on Winnipeg Transit. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press files)

"Our staff will continue to wear masks at work," said Pamela Hardman, director of marketing, engagement and communications at the Downtown Winnipeg BIZ. "We’ll also help promote downtown businesses that decide to continue to require masks so the public is aware where they still need to mask up." 

The City of Winnipeg will update the public on its mask policies after staff review the written public-health orders, a city spokeswoman said. 

"Currently, masks are required in all city facilities and on Winnipeg Transit, and the public should expect that we will continue this requirement for the foreseeable future." 

Opposition NDP Leader Wab Kinew said he was surprised by the decision to lift the mask mandate and said he will continue to wear a mask indoors, saying "it's not a huge burden." He called on the province to invest in ICU capacity considering the increased transmissibility of the delta variant. 

"We're missing investments in health care, even though that is what hammered us in the third wave," Kinew said. 

Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont said the announcement is "a little like Groundhog Day." 

"This government is not looking forward; they're not actually looking at what is going to happen. They're only going based on what is happening in Manitoba, which in a global pandemic makes no sense at all." 

Winnipeg Blue Bombers fans won't be asked to wear masks in the outdoor concourse at IG Field, but they will be required in indoor common areas and on buses travelling to and from the stadium. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press files)

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Winnipeg Blue Bombers fans won't be asked to wear masks in the outdoor concourse at IG Field, but they will be required in indoor common areas and on buses travelling to and from the stadium. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press files)

At the CFL home opener Thursday, Winnipeg Blue Bombers fans won't be asked to wear masks in the outdoor concourse at IG Field, but they will be required in indoor common areas and on buses travelling to and from the stadium, the football club said. 

Infection rates in Manitoba have dropped significantly, Roussin said, despite more of the spread being made up of the Delta variant. There's also less pressure on the health-care system, he added. 

"We will have to watch our numbers very carefully," he said. 

Since Friday, 101 new cases of the virus have been reported — 22 of which were on Tuesday — and three additional deaths. 

Federal officials warned last week that Canada could be on the brink of a fourth wave of COVID-19 driven by the Delta variant if the country opens too fast before enough people have been vaccinated. 

Alberta and Saskatchewan have faced immense criticism for removing all, or nearly all, of their COVID-19 health orders, including isolation requirements. 

Pallister said his Progressive Conservative government has been slower to lift restrictions and has not gone as far as its neighbours. 

— with files from Carol Sanders, The Canadian Press 

katie.may@freepress.mb.ca

Katie May

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