Public health orders unveiled Friday are the last step before Manitoba considers placing restrictions on fully vaccinated residents.
The new rules require teens to get vaccinated against COVID-19 or submit to testing in order to play sports, participate in indoor recreation programs or attend overnight camps. The restrictions also mandate stricter capacity limits for churches in southern Manitoba that include unvaccinated attendees.
Chief provincial public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin said the measures are "about as far as we can go" without restricting fully vaccinated residents.
On Friday, Roussin and Health Minister Audrey Gordon hinted they'll introduce more restrictions if these actions don't bring down rising infection and hospitalization rates.
"We wanted to go as far as we could without starting to affect vaccinated Manitobans," Roussin said, adding infection rates are rising rapidly among children and youth under age 19.
Starting Dec. 5, all 12- to 17-year-olds will have to have at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine or provide regular negative test results (at families' own expense) in order to play indoor sports or participate in any indoor recreation programs.
Previously, youth under 18 were exempt from vaccination requirements. Now, youth who are unvaccinated will have to show a negative test result from a pharmacy conducted within 72 hours.
The new rules will likely result in some players dropping out, but for others, the requirements bring relief, said Hockey Winnipeg executive director Ian McArton.
"In this case, any way you go is going to be polarizing," he said. "I know there are going to be a lot of people who are happy and this is a sigh of relief. And there's some, I'm sure, that are not going to be happy with that.
"I'm expecting that we'll have some people withdraw from our program because they won't be able to adhere to these new restrictions, and that's something that we need to prepare for... We might have to shake a few things up (on rosters and schedules) if some teams lose a number of players."
Hockey Manitoba is expected to issue return-to-play guidelines following a board meeting next week that will incorporate these restrictions.
Meantime, McArton said the burden of screening and data collection falls on volunteers — typically parents. "It does make things difficult the more and more we put on our volunteers," he said.
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Health officials are redeploying nurses to battle a fourth-wave surge in COVID-19 cases threatening to once again overwhelm Manitoba's critical-care resources.
But the number of available reinforcements could fall short of what's needed, and the provincial government is to blame, the president of the nurses' union said Friday.
According to the province, 76 per cent of 12- to 19-year-olds are fully vaccinated and 81 per cent have had one dose.
Asked if requiring unvaccinated teens to undergo testing would be putting a financial burden on families, Gordon said the goal is to protect all Manitobans and "the two-dose vaccines are free."
The restrictions for religious gatherings take effect Saturday. They will cap religious gatherings to 25 people in the Southern Health region, unless places of worship can place people into separate cohorts of 25; in that case, total attendance cannot exceed 25 per cent of facility capacity, to a maximum of 250 people.
The capacity limits do not apply to communities already exempt from regional restrictions due to higher vaccination rates and lower case counts, including Headingley, Macdonald, Niverville, Cartier and Taché.
One Winkler church decided to move its Sunday service entirely online for this weekend, saying the Friday announcement did not give it enough time to accommodate the new restrictions.
"It’s far too short notice to get information to our people to have them reasonably respond," said Rev. Rob Haslam of Pathway Community Church, which rents space from another congregation.
Haslam said his congregation will figure out how to worship under the new restrictions, rather than require a vaccine mandate for participation. Religious groups with vaccine mandates can worship without capacity restrictions.
"We will follow restrictions that allow us to have less capacity rather than divide our congregation," he said.
Plans for worship were still in process at Glencross Mennonite Church, located south of Morden in the Rural Municipality of Stanley. It may set up its FM transmitter so people could tune in from their vehicles at the church parking lot, said Rev. Peter Redekopp.
"Over the last year-and-a-half, we’ve worked out many options," he said of the possibility of hosting drive-in services again.
Current public health orders allow outdoor gatherings if people stay inside their vehicles or maintain separation of at least two metres from others in attendance.
Roussin acknowledged religious groups in southern Manitoba may feel unfairly targeted but that's not the intent of the rules.
"We do have to follow where the epidemiology takes us, and right now, we're seeing a lot of transmission in those areas. We know that transmission occurs with prolonged contact in indoor places, so you'll see that all of our orders are there directed to try to break up those transmission chains," he said.
"We've always been in this together, so we've never tried to target people; we're trying to target where the virus is being transmitted."
Gordon was asked by the Free Press about the church she attends — Springs Church in Winnipeg — offering its congregation a "religious exemption" from COVID-19 vaccination. (The church's exemption is not legal.)
Springs Church has been ticketed in the past for breaking Manitoba public health orders and was part of an unsuccessful court challenge against pandemic restrictions.
The minister failed to answer the question directly, saying she encourages everyone to get vaccinated and, "It's important that individuals read the public health order which states very clearly that there is no religious exemptions."
The province announced 193 new COVID-19 cases Friday. There were 1,489 active cases, with 110 people in hospital, including 30 in intensive care.
— with files from Brenda Suderman
Katie May is a general-assignment reporter for the Free Press.