Manitobans will get some respite from strict COVID-19 orders when pandemic rules are eased on Friday, even as there was confirmation a second highly contagious coronavirus variant has arrived in the province.

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Manitobans will get some respite from strict COVID-19 orders when pandemic rules are eased on Friday, even as there was confirmation a second highly contagious coronavirus variant has arrived in the province.

On Tuesday morning, chief provincial public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin and Premier Brian Pallister said the Manitoba government will move forward with the full slate of pandemic health orders proposed last week, with a few modifications.

Premier Brian Pallister (right) and chief public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin make an announcement about changes in public health orders at the Manitoba Legislative Building in Winnipeg on Tuesday.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Premier Brian Pallister (right) and chief public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin make an announcement about changes in public health orders at the Manitoba Legislative Building in Winnipeg on Tuesday.

"We shouldn't interpret these reopenings as a reduction in our risk. We were at this place before," Roussin said. "We know that if we let our guards down, we're going to see transmission of this virus again, so we all have to be on guard, continue to practise those fundamentals."

Less than two hours later, the province issued a news release advising that three new cases involving "variants of concern" had been detected in Manitoba, including the first two cases of the B.1.351 mutation, which was first detected in South Africa.

Rules as of Friday:

COVID-19 prevention orders are slowly being rolled back in Manitoba. New public health orders will come into force on Friday and will permit the following:

— Households can choose to host their two designated visitors at their home, or designate a second household so that two households can visit each other. Everyone in the home must agree to allow designated individuals to visit.

— Outdoor gatherings expanded to 10 people, including outdoor sports and recreation.

— Except for theatres, concert halls, bingo halls and casinos, all businesses can reopen with precautions and limits in place.

COVID-19 prevention orders are slowly being rolled back in Manitoba. New public health orders will come into force on Friday and will permit the following:

— Households can choose to host their two designated visitors at their home, or designate a second household so that two households can visit each other. Everyone in the home must agree to allow designated individuals to visit.

— Outdoor gatherings expanded to 10 people, including outdoor sports and recreation.

— Except for theatres, concert halls, bingo halls and casinos, all businesses can reopen with precautions and limits in place.

_ Malls, retailers, personal services and restaurants can open at half capacity (or 250 people, whichever is lower), though Manitobans are still required to sit only with members of their own household at restaurants.

— Churches and places of worship are allowed to open at either 25 per cent capacity or to 100 people, whichever is lower.

— Indoor recreation and sport facilities can open at 25 per cent total capacity, with public health measures in place for spectators, common areas and locker rooms, and without the requirement to provide one-on-one instruction. Users must wear a mask while indoors or exercising, except when swimming.

— VLTs can operate.

— Professional theatre groups, dance companies, symphonies and operas can resume rehearsals. The public cannot attend.

_ Day camps for children can operate at 25 per cent capacity.

— Indoor sport facilities including gyms, fitness centres, rinks, courts, fields, ranges, studios, clubs, pools and centres can open at 25 per cent total capacity, with public health measures in place including for spectators, common areas and locker rooms. Public health officials say this will permit team practices to resume, but league play is not allowed.

— Dance, theatre and music facilities can open for individual instruction and group classes for a total capacity of 25 per cent.

This variant, like the B.1.1.7 mutation that became dominant in the United Kingdom, is considered to be more transmissible than the coronavirus that's circulating in the province. A sixth case of the B.1.1.7 variant has also been detected in Manitoba. All cases were in the Winnipeg region. The Free Press asked officials for details about each case, but they refused to elaborate.

Manitoba also reported two more COVID-19-related deaths — a man in his 70s from the Interlake-Eastern health region and a Winnipeg man in his 50s, connected to an outbreak at Seven Oaks Hospital — and 64 new cases.

"We know that there are variants of concern throughout Canada and have been detected in Manitoba," Roussin said, just hours before the province announced the South Africa variant had been detected here, as well as the sixth case of the U.K. variant. "We know that these variants spread more easily, which could quickly increase our case numbers and again put demands on our health care system."

On Friday, when new public health orders take effect, more businesses will be allowed to reopen and others will be able to expand their capacity. Manitobans will have more recreation opportunities and outdoor gathering sizes will increase. Manitobans can designate one other household unit to visit their home, or continue following the current rule that allows two designated household visitors. The public health orders will expire March 25.

Chief public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin: "We were at this place before."

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Chief public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin: "We were at this place before."

Rules that restrict dine-in service at restaurants to household members only won't change because it's too risky to have people from different homes sitting together indoors, Roussin said. No changes are planned in the short term to remove self-isolation requirements for travellers to Manitoba.

"We have to remember Easter is coming, and spring break, Passover: these are traditionally times when we like to get together," Pallister said. "We’re going to have to remember the lessons of last fall as we move forward into the next few weeks."

After Thanksgiving, when many families got together, case counts and deaths spiked in November and December.

“We know that these variants spread more easily, which could quickly increase our case numbers and again put demands on our health care system.” — Dr. Brent Roussin

Roussin said Manitoba continues to be in a "risky spot" when it comes to COVID-19 and added the pandemic response system will remain at red-critical for the entire province, despite low case counts in some areas such as western Manitoba.

As of Tuesday morning, 187 people were in hospital receiving treatment for COVID-19, including 25 patients in intensive care.

New cases were reported in all health regions, including 36 in Winnipeg. The five-day COVID-19 test positivity rate was four per cent provincially and 3.2 per cent in Winnipeg.

Manitoba premier Brian Pallister.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Manitoba premier Brian Pallister.

"Right now, we’re still at a critical point in our pandemic response," Roussin said. "We’ve seen, certainly, numbers trending in the right direction. We still have some demands on our health care system, we are being faced with some risk with the variants of concern."

He added that Manitobans should continue to limit their activities to essential outings, keep close contacts to a minimum, practise physical distancing and stay home when sick.

Should Manitoba experience clusters of cases or increased community transmission associated with eased restrictions, Roussin said public health will consider new measures to target places where the virus is spreading.

"We’re going to have to remember the lessons of last fall as we move forward into the next few weeks." — Premier Brian Pallister

"We want to be able again to get back to a very targeted approach rather than the widespread restrictions that we required when we had widespread community transmission," Roussin said. "That could include testing, it could include sector-specific restrictions if necessary."

Cynthia Carr, a Winnipeg epidemiologist, said public health officials need to keep a close watch on how the virus is spreading to see if transmission risk has changed, given the potential for more contagious variants to be introduced to the community.

"We’re going to have to be really careful at looking at both spikes in cases, but also if there is anything different, because that can alert us that it’s not the previous dominant strain and there could be more change in terms of what might become more dominant in Manitoba," said Carr, founder of EPI Research Inc.

"I don’t want to panic people, we just have a few cases of variants of concern, but we also just started out with one case of COVID in the province."

NDP Leader Wab Kinew said it will be important for Manitobans to continue to do their part to keep COVID-19 at bay and called for enhanced paid sick leave on an "ongoing and permanent" basis to support people who need to self-isolate.

"If we can put in provisions to help people stay home when they’re sick and also address the social determinants of health, so that if somebody does get sick they can isolate safely from other folks in their immediate family and surroundings, I think that would really help us to be able to sustain the progress fighting against COVID-19," Kinew said.

 

Download Details of updated restrictions (March 8, 2021)

 

— with files from Katie May and Carol Sanders

danielle.dasilva@freepress.mb.ca

Danielle Da Silva

Danielle Da Silva
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Danielle Da Silva is a general assignment reporter.

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