Manitobans who are not immunized against COVID-19 will be prohibited from dining out and attending many public activities under new health orders designed to boost the province's vaccination rate and prevent the health care system from being overwhelmed.
Starting Saturday, Manitobans will be required to wear masks in indoor public places, and as of Sept. 3, only fully immunized Manitobans will be able to take part in certain events and activities.
"We are introducing these measures to help protect people across the province and to ensure the health care system is not overwhelmed by a fourth wave of COVID-19," Health Minister Audrey Gordon said Friday.
"The emergence of the delta variant has changed things significantly," Gordon said at a news conference with chief provincial public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin. "Now public health officials tell us the pandemic is one of the unvaccinated," she said.
In Manitoba, 406,926 people are not vaccinated — including 229,024 who are under 12 and are too young to be immunized, Gordon said.
"We need to do everything we can to protect them from COVID-19, especially as they return to school," Gordon said.
The mask mandate kicks in Saturday but the province decided to hold off imposing the vaccine requirement for events and services until Sept. 3 to give businesses time to have protocols for checking vaccine passports.
"These orders are here to try to reduce the transmission of the virus and the need for further lockdowns," Roussin said.
"Ensuring only fully vaccinated people take part in some of these higher-risk activities is one such method of doing that." Dancing in nightclubs will be allowed again, for instance, but only the fully vaccinated will be allowed in and they'll have to wear masks when they're on the dance floor.
Places of worship, however, will not require attendees to be fully vaccinated.
Roussin said public health knows they're at risk for transmission of the virus but places of worship have always been treated differently under the orders.
"There is some difference," he said, noting places of worship have constitutional protections that need to be considered and have capacity restrictions and other protocols in place.
While those who attend many other activities and facilities do need to be fully vaccinated, the orders don't require businesses to make sure workers are vaccinated, Roussin said.
He encouraged private businesses to consider mandating vaccines. More than 177,000 unvaccinated Manitobans are eligible to be immunized, he said
"We need as many Manitobans as soon as possible to do so in order to reduce the impact of this coming fourth wave," he said. The vaccination requirement includes those attending indoor recreational activities including pools and ice rinks, with the exception of youth sports.
"We know the impact of these restrictions, especially on their mental health, especially for youth," Roussin said. "For now, we want to be able to offer these activities to all youth," he said. "If we see a lot of transmission in these settings, we may have to change that."
Membership has its privileges
As of Sept. 3, there will be new requirements for Manitobans to be fully immunized to participate in certain events and activities, including:
• indoor and outdoor ticketed sporting events and concerts
• indoor theatre/dance/symphony events
• restaurants (indoor and patio dining)
• nightclubs and all other licensed premises
• casinos, bingo halls and VLT lounges
• movie theatres
• fitness centres, gyms and indoor sporting and recreational facilities (excluding youth recreational sport)
• organized indoor group recreational classes and activities, and indoor recreational businesses
Children 11 and under who are not eligible to be immunized will be able to attend events and activities with a fully immunized adult.
Earlier this week, the province announced that all designated provincial public service workers who have contact with vulnerable populations, especially children, must be fully immunized by Oct. 31. Those who are not will have to produce proof of a negative test result up to three times a week, Roussin said. Undergoing the invasive nostril swab test several times a week may persuade the unvaccinated to get immunized.
"We're confident this is going to encourage vaccine uptake," Roussin said. Details about who will pay for mandated COVID-19 testing for holdouts are still being worked out, he said.
"The great majority of our newly identified cases are unvaccinated," Roussin said. On Friday, 26 of the 31 people who tested positive for the virus had not been fully vaccinated, he said.
"In Southern Health region today, 13 of 14 cases were not immunized. These numbers are even higher for ICU admissions. Very few who are immunized require ICU admission," Roussin said.
"We're concerned," Manitoba's top doctor said of the Southern Health region, which has the lowest vaccination rates in the province. "We're going to take the steps necessary," he said.
The province is looking at "regional measures" to address the low vaccination rate. "There's nothing confirmed," said Roussin, who indicated public health officials will visit the region Monday. He didn't specify what they will do there.
Last summer, before there were vaccines, the province introduced its colour-coded pandemic response system. It was supposed to allow the province to manage the virus by imposing restrictions on regions that were hot spots and avoiding the need for provincewide shutdowns. That regional approach was tried in Prairie Mountain and the Northern health regions when outbreaks occurred but was thwarted by the ability of Manitobans to travel from region to region spreading the virus.
NDP health critic Uzoma Asagwara questioned the province's efforts to encourage vaccine uptake in Southern Health.
"I do think that there needs to be a stronger emphasis placed on actively engaging and creatively engaging with the communities, and take additional steps to protect folks from this deadly virus," Asagwara said. "Maybe conversations are being had that we're not aware of, but certainly, to date, there is no indication there's been an aggressive, serious effort to engage folks in a way that is spent meeting their needs," the MLA said.
Manitoba Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont said the province didn't do a great job of promoting vaccine uptake.
"They've kept saying, 'well, you have a right to refuse' instead of emphasizing how incredible the vaccines are," he said Friday.
"The other thing that they have not explained well enough is that when you are running a hospital or a school, you cannot have people in that hospital or school unvaccinated. It's not safe. It's not safe for them. It's not safe for the kids and it's not safe for patients. And you know, people are saying 'I have a right. I have a right,'" Lamont said. "Yeah, but it's not just about them."
After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.