After weeks of rising COVID-19 cases, Manitoba announced a clampdown on private gatherings and other new restrictions Monday, as the province struggles to “dampen” a rapidly growing third wave.

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After weeks of rising COVID-19 cases, Manitoba announced a clampdown on private gatherings and other new restrictions Monday, as the province struggles to "dampen" a rapidly growing third wave.

"We’re in a precarious place right now," said chief provincial public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin, who announced the tightened rules at a media briefing alongside Premier Brian Pallister.

New restrictions

The latest provincewide restrictions take effect Wednesday at 12:01 a.m., and include:

● Reducing gathering sizes by not allowing anyone from outside a household to visit either indoors or outdoors. The exception is one designated visitor for people who live alone.

● Only 10 people allowed to visit outside in public spaces.

● Capacity at faith-based gatherings reduced to 25 per cent, or 10 people, whichever is less. Masks must be worn.

The latest provincewide restrictions take effect Wednesday at 12:01 a.m., and include:

● Reducing gathering sizes by not allowing anyone from outside a household to visit either indoors or outdoors. The exception is one designated visitor for people who live alone.

● Only 10 people allowed to visit outside in public spaces.

● Capacity at faith-based gatherings reduced to 25 per cent, or 10 people, whichever is less. Masks must be worn.

● Gyms and fitness centres can stay open with 25 per cent capacity, but everyone must maintain a distance of three metres.

● Outdoor sports have to limit spectators to only one parent or guardian.

● Day camps can be open, but with only 10 children.

● Food court seating areas in shopping malls have to close.

● Retail stores must reduce capacity to 25 per cent or a maximum of 250 people, whichever is smaller. Mall capacity is 25 per cent of capacity.

● Personal services can continue to operate at 50 per cent of capacity, but appointments have to be booked in advance.

New coronavirus cases in Manitoba have quadrupled in the past four weeks; 210 new cases were reported Monday. Since Friday, more than 700 cases were reported in the province.

Five-day average test-positivity rates rose to 8.2 per cent in Winnipeg and 7.6 per cent provincewide Monday. Roussin said the new restrictions go into effect at 12:01 a.m. Wednesday and will remain in place until May 26,  putting the kibosh on May long-weekend get-togethers for the second consecutive year.

"We're where we were at end of October, right before we saw that dramatic increase in cases," he said.

But now it's not just the elderly making up the bulk of patients in intensive care. The average age of ICU patients is currently 56, he said.

Cases are increasing in most age groups, but "rapidly" among people in their 20s and 30s, he said, adding hospitalizations are up 56 per cent from last week.

Premier Brian Pallister (right) and Dr. Brent Roussin, the province's chief public health officer, announced the additional measures on Monday.

(RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES)

Premier Brian Pallister (right) and Dr. Brent Roussin, the province's chief public health officer, announced the additional measures on Monday.

The premier warned there will be "(a) few tough weeks ahead," but it won't be the full-scale lockdown Manitobans saw in the fall.

"As a government, we continue to take a thoughtful and balanced approach," Pallister said.

News of the clampdown follows calls by doctors and other prominent Manitobans last week who, fearing a repeat of last fall's deadly second wave that hit before a lockdown was implemented, asked the premier to take more drastic measures to keep people safe. That was followed by a rally Sunday where hundreds demonstrated at The Forks demanding less-restrictive measures. 

Beginning Wednesday, households won't be allowed to have any visitors — indoors or outside, except for people who live alone and may have one designated visitor. 

While most residents can't have outdoor visitors, restaurants with outdoor patios — which are regulated with appropriately spaced seating — will be allowed to seat four people from different households at a table, Roussin said.

Malls will be allowed to operate at 25 per cent capacity but their food courts must close. Retail stores can remain open at 25 per cent capacity, and enforcement will be stepped up. Hair salons and other personal services don't have to close but must continue to operate at 50 per cent capacity and now, by appointment only.

Watching for variant

Click to Expand

Manitoba's chief provincial public health officer said he's waiting to find out if the insidious new COVID-19 variant that emerged in India has made its way here.

"We had early indications late last week that we may have the Indian variant related to international travel," Dr. Brent Roussin said Monday.

"We haven't had any confirmation on it."

The highly contagious variant has spurred a deadly spike in cases in India, which is setting global daily records for new coronavirus infections. The surge has undermined the Indian government’s premature claims of victory over the pandemic.

The changes may not make either side happy but everyone in Manitoba needs to abide by the rules, Pallister said.

"If people won't follow them, they won't be effective," he said, adding cases are rising and vaccinations can't keep up with the spread of highly contagious variants.

"Look around the world and ask yourself if you want no restrictions. Look where there's none. People are dying." 

He vowed to step up enforcement of the orders and surveillance to ensure people without an exemption and are returning to the province self-isolate for 14 days. 

"We're at a very critical point now," he said.

A Winnipeg ICU doctor said the measures don't go far enough. Dr. Anand Kumar said he doesn't expect fine-tuning restrictions will change individuals' behaviour or stop the spread of the virus. Pressure on the health-care system will make a full lockdown inevitable, he predicted Monday.

"They’ll go to a full lockdown within days — a week at the outside," the Health Sciences Centre doctor said.

"They’re trying to fine-tune exponential growth. It can’t be done. Every time it’s been tried, it’s failed. You can either let (the virus) run rampant, try to fine-tune and fail and then it’ll become rampant or you can maximally suppress it and keep the numbers down all the time."

A more effective, albeit more costly intervention, would have been to have a hard closure of non-essential businesses while offering them financial support and allowing one or two designated visitors outdoors for each household to maintain mental health and well-being, said Dr. Philippe Lagacé-Wiens.

"In the end, the evidence is that this would likely result in shorter shutdowns and, thus, better economic outcomes than prolonged partial closures," the St. Boniface Hospital medical microbiologist said.

Lagacé-Wiens questioned the logic behind allowing outdoor patios to serve customers but not allowing outdoor household visitors. 

"In fact, it’s likely that sharing a meal on a patio with three non–household friends is riskier than a masked conversation around a fire pit with one or two designated visitors in your yard." – Dr. Philippe Lagacé–Wiens

"We know that a very small fraction of transmissions, estimated at less than five per cent, occur outdoors, and there’s no reason to believe that the physical location that the interactions take place at has any impact," he said.

"In fact, it’s likely that sharing a meal on a patio with three non-household friends is riskier than a masked conversation around a fire pit with one or two designated visitors in your yard. It seems that the most likely justification for this approach is to discourage safe outdoor activities on a private property in favour of encouraging a similar activity outdoors in a business location," he said.

Roussin offered encouragement and a glimmer of hope that Manitobans may be able to get together on the May long weekend. If vaccinations ramp up and case numbers, test positivity and hospitalization rates fall, the restrictions could be lifted in time for the traditional start of summer.

"It's our real goal to get ahead of this — to bring down these numbers quite early — and we just might be able to save that long weekend," he said.

carol.sanders@freepress.mb.ca

Carol Sanders

Carol Sanders
Legislature reporter

After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.

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