Manitoba will proceed cautiously in easing code red restrictions that have severely limited gatherings and shut down large segments of the provincial economy for more than two months.
Premier Brian Pallister and chief provincial public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin were careful at a news conference Friday not to raise expectations about ending the lockdown when the current public health order expires Jan. 22.
Instead of wholesale changes, they made it clear the government will take a baby-steps approach.
"You can be assured that our approach is going to be a very cautious one," Roussin said.
Pallister said the government will ask Manitobans for their input before announcing a draft plan early next week. That will give several days for those most affected by any changes to adjust to the new public health orders, which will presumably come into effect Jan. 23.
"There are a number of services and activities that could be considered, but we must remember that this can't be — and this won't be — a fast return to normal," the premier said.
"Our goal is most certainly to create a sustainable path forward where our businesses can safely reopen and stay open," he said.
"What we don't want to do is have a yo-yo effect where we allow openings and then because of the rising case numbers have to invoke more restrictions. That would not be in anybody's best interests."
Roussin said the code red restrictions "have been tough" on Manitobans, but they've made a difference.
According to the government's calculations, the provincewide shutdown that took effect Nov. 12 likely saved about 1,700 lives by Jan. 3.
Roussin said Manitobans have a long way to go before they can return to a pre-COVID-19 lifestyle.
On Friday, the province announced 191 new COVID-19 cases, including 84 in the North and 71 in the Winnipeg health region, and five more pandemic deaths.
"If we let up now, all this hard work and sacrifice from these past several weeks will be for nothing," the province's top doctor warned.
On Friday, the government posted a survey on its EngageMB website to gauge Manitobans' comfort levels with restoring various activities.
Manitobans are asked to weigh in about gradually expanding retail shopping, reopening barbershops and hair salons, gyms and fitness centres, restaurants and non-regulated health professions. They are also asked for feedback about restrictions on faith-based and ceremonial gatherings, organized sport and recreation, as well as indoor, outdoor and household gathering sizes.
While providing few specifics about the government's plans, Roussin acknowledged Friday it is possible the new orders could vary depending on where Manitobans live. He made the comment when asked whether hard-hit northern Manitoba might have to continue to live under the same tough restrictions beyond next week.
"We haven't made any final decisions yet on the upcoming review of the orders, but definitely nothing is off the table," he said.
NDP Leader Wab Kinew said he trusts Roussin's public health advice, but not the Progressive Conservative government's judgement.
"The Pallister government has to get the reopening right, because none of us want to see a third lockdown," he said.
"Unfortunately, this government has mismanaged the pandemic in the past; they were unprepared for the second wave and that ended up leading to code red restrictions potentially lasting much longer than they otherwise might have.
"When it comes to decisions that the premier and the cabinet make — I think we're all still reminiscing about the (Ready, Safe, Grow) billboards they put up last summer, and it was just sort of the symbolic failure of them to prepare for the second wave," the Opposition leader said.
"I really want them to proceed with the necessary caution and to get it right, because I don't think any of us want to be back in lockdown two months from now because the province mismanaged this process."
Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont said the province needs to reopen slowly and be willing to impose more restrictions quickly if case numbers surge.
"They need to be really cautious and willing to shut down right away," Lamont said.
— with files from Katie May
After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.
Larry Kusch didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life until he attended a high school newspaper editor’s workshop in Regina in the summer of 1969 and listened to a university student speak glowingly about the journalism program at Carleton University in Ottawa.