After three weekends of being kept apart from family and friends, Manitobans will be able to socialize together outdoors, as of this weekend.
Acknowledging COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, put in place on the May long weekend, have been "especially tough on Manitobans," the chief provincial public health officer announced a small loosening of rules, as of 12:01 a.m. Saturday.
Dr. Brent Roussin described it Wednesday as a "release valve" for Manitobans.
"We are in a position to slowly ease, very minimally, some of our restrictions," said Roussin, citing the drop in daily case counts since tighter rules were put in place. On Wednesday, the province reported 250 new cases.
Outdoor gatherings in a public space, in a park for instance, can include up to five people.
As many as five people will be allowed to visit outdoors at a private residence, but Roussin said they should not be from more than two other households (in addition to the people who live at the residence).
The new rules mean Manitobans will be able to participate in outdoor recreational activities, such as golfing or camping, with up to five people from outside of their household. These orders will be in effect for two weeks.
It is not, however, permission for Manitobans to vastly increase their contacts, Roussin said.
"We're once again relying on Manitobans to know that we're not signalling an opening here; we're just signalling that Manitobans have given up so much and haven't been able to see the people they care about in so long, even outdoors," he said.
Local epidemiologist Cynthia Carr called the move "overall, very positive."
Restrictions remaining in placeClick to Expand
• Indoor public gatherings are not permitted, and visitors are not permitted indoors on private property, except in certain circumstances
• Requirements for employers to allow employees to work from home as much as possible
• Retail businesses may only operate at 10 per cent capacity or 100 customers, whichever is fewer, and only one person per household will be allowed to enter a business (with some exceptions, such as a single parent with children or someone who requires a caregiver)
• Continued requirements for shopping malls to manage capacity and access to eliminate gatherings
• Many businesses and organizations will remain closed for in-person service, including gyms and fitness clubs, restaurants and bars (including patios), personal service businesses, museums, galleries and libraries
"What all of us really need is to see the people that we love and care about... and we’ve got to give people safe options to do that. And, of course, the safest option to do that is to be outdoors in small groups," she said.
Her only caution: the province must not let up on vaccine messaging, and suggested businesses wishing to reopen their doors sooner stay patient.
"This is really a one-step-at-a-time approach... it doesn’t mean there’s a closed door there."
On Wednesday, the province reported the five-day test positivity rate in Manitoba was 11.5 per cent (12.3 per cent in Winnipeg).
At the height of the current third wave, Manitoba's test positivity rate reached 14.4 on May 23, and 16.8 in the city on May 22.
The province reported two additional deaths Wednesday, including: a male in his teens from the Winnipeg health region; and a man in his 50s from Winnipeg, linked to the B.1.1.7 variant of concern.
No other details about the teen's death were released.
"This is yet another tragedy in Manitoba; this pandemic has cost us so much, and my condolences go out to their loved ones," Roussin said.
An increase in cases of the Delta variant in Manitoba (also known as B.1617, first detected in India) hasn't yet resulted in sicker patients, Roussin said. Delta is significantly more contagious than the dominant strain of the novel coronavirus.
Lanette Siragusa, the province's chief nursing officer, said as of Wednesday morning, 151 patients were in Manitoba ICUs, including COVID-19 patients and people with other critical illnesses.
"The recent lower case counts provide some reassurance, as well as some light at the end of the tunnel," she said.
Of the 97 intensive-care COVID-19 patients, 67 are being treated in Manitoba, 30 are in hospitals in other provinces (27 in Ontario, two in Alberta, one in Saskatchewan).
Manitoba's normal ICU capacity is 72.
Siragusa said no Manitoba ICU patient has been transferred out of province since June 4, but out-of-province transfers are expected to continue.
She also reported the deaths of two patients who had been transferred out of province May 25: a man in his 70s and a woman in her 60s. Those deaths had not yet been logged in Manitoba's official count, Siragusa said.
Earlier Wednesday, Premier Brian Pallister announced a lottery for vaccinated Manitobans aged 12 and older to encourage immunization.
Pallister said he was scheduled to get his second vaccine dose Thursday, and promised to announce more details about the government's reopening strategy the same day.
— with files from Katie May