On the very day it smashed the record for COVID-19 cases, Manitoba said it is forced to stop people from mingling this long weekend to ease pressure on bursting intensive-care units.
On Thursday, after Manitoba had a record-setting 603 new COVID-19 cases, the government announced a ban on outdoor social gatherings as of 12:01 a.m. Saturday.
Chief provincial public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin said even in outdoor areas such as parks, playgrounds, golf courses and sports fields, people must only interact with members of their own household.
Social visits inside private homes and indoor dining at restaurants are already banned.
Also as of Saturday, only one person per household will be allowed to enter any business, Roussin said, adding there will be exceptions for a person who has a caregiver or a single parent. The new rules will remain in effect until Wednesday at 12:01 a.m.
"We have hundreds of people in the hospital struggling for their lives. There are thousands of health-care providers that are struggling to provide care for them. We need to stay at home as much as possible right now," Roussin said.
"We need to reduce the amount of contacts we have outside our household. It’s all up to us. We know what to do. We’ve done it before."
Roussin didn't announce a curfew or impose travel restrictions for the long weekend. He stopped short of imposing a stay-at-home order, but said he is asking Manitobans to stay home.
"I can't understate the importance of us staying at home now," he said.
The doctor said the strain on intensive care unit capacity in the province — which resulted in Manitoba transferring three COVID-19 patients to Thunder Bay, Ont., this week – left the government with no choice but to issue further restrictions prior to the long weekend.
Health Minister Heather Stefanson, who was at the news conference, urged people to get vaccinated and comply with public health orders.
"May long weekend starts tomorrow, which many view as the unofficial start of summer. We know everyone would love to spend the weekend connecting with friends, family, and loved ones," Stefanson said.
"Today, we are urging everyone to hang on a little bit longer. We need to work together while staying apart."
During a four-day period ending Monday, Manitoba ICUs admitted 34 COVID-19 patients. The pre-pandemic critical care capacity was 72 beds.
In addition to the three patients transported to Ontario, the number of COVID-19 patients in Manitoba's ICUs as of Thursday morning was 76, and nine of them were under age 40. As of midnight Thursday, that number of total ICU patients had dropped slightly to 125.
In total, 291 patients with COVID-19 were in hospital Thursday.
Stefanson could not answer questions about the province's contingency plans or why front-line health-professionals haven't been informed about them. She deferred questions about Manitoba's current number of ICU nurses to Shared Health, which also hasn't provided the number despite repeated requests.
About 70 per cent of hospitalized COVID-19 patients in Manitoba are unvaccinated, a fact Stefanson emphasized to urge Manitobans to get vaccinated.
Earlier Thursday, Premier Brian Pallister held a news conference to ask Manitobans to obey pandemic rules and get vaccinated.
"I think we're in the darkest days of this time with this pandemic," he said. "Clearly, case numbers are very, very high, and unsustainably high. I think it's important to understand that we are availing ourselves of every tactic and technique we can possibly use given the limitations of the resources that are always a real factor."
The premier said the province would announce a vaccination incentive program next week.
"Manitobans have a choice, and you have an important choice to make," Pallister said. "I respect the fact that each of you has to make that choice, but I also know that we’re all in this together; that you’re not alone in your decision and the consequences of it."
“Do it so you can see family and friends. Do it so you can have dinner and a movie... Do it so you can go to church. Do it for your own reasons, but do it for others, as well.” – Premier Brian Pallister
Pallister said achieving 75 per cent vaccination coverage would not be enough to provide protection to all Manitobans.
"I think we must aim higher," Pallister said. "The higher percentage of vaccinations we can achieve, the sooner we can get through this third wave."
The premier appealed to Manitobans who may be on the fence about getting vaccinated and have not yet booked an appointment.
"Do it so you can see family and friends. Do it so you can have dinner and a movie... Do it so you can go to church," he said. "Do it for your own reasons, but do it for others, as well."
NDP leader Wab Kinew said he was "frustrated" by the government's message to blame Manitobans' behaviour for the new restrictions instead of bringing in ICU nurses from other jurisdictions to bolster the health-care system. He questioned why Stefanson announced the number of unvaccinated Manitobans in hospital considering the initial slow pace of the province's vaccine rollout.
"If we are all in this together, we can't have a government that's blaming the people," Kinew said.
Katie May reports on courts, crime and justice for the Free Press.