Social gatherings banned, non-critical businesses closed as all of Manitoba moves to red alert level

Widespread shutdowns are coming as Manitoba’s premier and top doctor order the entire province into the red, or critical, level of the provincial pandemic response plan.

Among the “short, sharp set of restrictions” is a ban on social gatherings of any kind starting Thursday, and that could last into December, said Chief Provincial Public Health Officer Dr. Brent Roussin. Social contact must be reduced to members of your household only.

“We are truly at a crossroads in our fight against this pandemic,” Roussin said at a Tuesday morning announcement with Premier Brian Pallister.

Non-essential retail stores, gyms, movie theatres, salons and churches will close. All recreational facilities and sports activities will be shut down, said Roussin, and non-essential travel is discouraged.

Schools and child-care centres will remain open because, despite hundreds of cases, there have been only a small number of confirmed transmission events or outbreaks in the K-12 system, said Roussin.

‘We need to turn these numbers around’

There have been more than 2,000 cases in the past week, and the measures in recent weeks haven’t been enough to stem the spread, he said.

“We need to turn these numbers around, and we need to turn them around now,” Roussin said.

The widespread closures may be in effect for a minimum of two weeks and up to four weeks, or two incubation periods of the virus, he said.

The shift comes as Manitoba announced 384 new cases, five more deaths and a record five-day test-positivity rate — a rolling average of the number of COVID-19 tests that come back positive — of 10.6 per cent. There are a record numbers of COVID-19 patients in hospital (207) and in intensive care (30).

Manitoba set records Tuesday with 207 Manitobans with COVID-19 in hospital and 30 in intensive care. Five more deaths were also announced, bringing the provincial total to 114, with the majority of those occurring in October and November. (Bryce Hoye/CBC)

Retail stores considered critical may remain open at 25 per cent capacity, while non-essential stores will only be able to function on a pick-up or delivery basis.

The orders don’t affect regulated health professions such as massage therapy, physiotherapy and the dentist, Roussin said.

Travel to and from northern Manitoba is restricted.

Small business boost

Pallister said Manitoba is going to have to hit “the circuit breaker.” He acknowledged the coming weeks will be hard on many and announced supports for businesses impacted by the closures.

WATCH | ‘Further action is needed,’ says Manitoba’s top doctor:

Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba’s chief public health officer, announced new COVID-19 restrictions on Tuesday, as the entire province is moved to the red, or critical, level on the pandemic response system. 3:26

Those include the Manitoba bridge grant, which will provide $5,000 before Christmas to businesses that apply, with the possibility of another $5,000 in the New Year if necessary, Pallister said.

He announced changes to a provincial gap funding initiative, which he said 10,000 small businesses that didn’t qualify for the federal wage support previously received.

That program is changing from a conditional loan to a grant that employers will not have to pay back, Pallister said.

Care home crisis

Tighter restrictions came into effect in the Southern Health region Monday as it entered the red alert level. Winnipeg and the surrounding area went into the red level just over a week earlier.

Cases continue to surge in several parts of the province, and people in the education and health-care systems have asked for more support in the form of resources and tighter restrictions to stem the spread of COVID-19.

Roussin said the rationale for moving the entire province into a new lockdown is related to soaring test positivity rates and high numbers of close contacts in positive cases. Manitoba’s test positivity rate Tuesday was a record high of 10.6 per cent; it was 10 per cent in Winnipeg; and it was 5.3 per cent in the Prairie Mountain Health region in western Manitoba, he said.

Disease experts say anything higher than a three per cent test positivity rate warrants widespread closures.

Manitoba set records for provincial test positivity rates (10.6%) and for Winnipeg (10%) on Tuesday. (Bryce Hoye/CBC)

Manitoba also announced several more care home outbreaks in Winnipeg facilities on Monday after a weekend when there were several deaths and numerous 911 calls at Maples Long Term Care Home.

The latest information from Revera, the for-profit company that runs the Maples Long Term Care Home, said 22 residents at that facility have died of COVID-19, with dozens more staff and residents testing positive.

Maples’ death toll is the second highest in Manitoba, with Parkview Place, which is also owned by Revera, having lost 23 residents to COVID-19.

The Winnipeg Regional Health Authority said it will send the chief executive nurse of Deer Lodge Centre, Kathleen Klaasen, to the Maples care home starting Tuesday. She will be on site daily, said the president of the regional health authority.

The Canadian Red Cross is sending staff to the care homes on Friday, and the health minister has ordered independent investigations into Parkview and Maples.

Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman and Opposition Leader Wab Kinew have both urged the province to consider calling in the military to help the people in those two care homes, following reports of staffing shortages and other concerns.

No to military

Pallister said Manitoba won’t be asking for military help, because it would suggest “a lack of confidence” in health officials such as Roussin.

In recent weeks, the government has been criticized for not being proactive enough ahead of a second wave that experts anticipated would hit this fall.

On Tuesday, Pallister suggested more than once that the current wave of criticism is being largely directed at public health officials such as Roussin. Meanwhile, hundreds of doctors, nurses and teachers have signed letters in the past two weeks addressed to the premier and to the health and education ministers specifically.

Pallister has threatened to crack down on people ignoring public health orders and doubled fine amounts for people and businesses violating those orders.

He repeated a stern warning he’s issued several times lately, and he did so via a kind of sports analogy he frequently uses.

“We have a chance to bend the COVID curve, and we need everyone on the team. And if you don’t want to be on the team, be prepared to pay for it.”

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