Allowing household gatherings a risky — and political — move

It's time to roll the dice.

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Opinion

It’s time to roll the dice.

Faced with an increasingly antsy populace itching for a little freedom, Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba’s chief provincial public health officer, confirmed Tuesday the province will likely start a surgical re-opening of the economy first thing Saturday morning — even while pandemic metrics remain alarmingly high.

Is it a reasonably safe bet? For the most part, the potential measures announced Tuesday could be described as reasonable, calculated risks. Most retail will open, along with some non-regulated health services like pedorthists and reflexology, and services such as hair salons and barber shops.

Capacity will continue to be limited everywhere to 25 per cent or 250 people, with physical distancing and mandatory non-medical mask use indoors still in place. No changes are expected to things like faith-based services, recreation facilities, libraries, gyms, tattoo parlours and food services.

The easing of economic restrictions and the re-opening of most retail businesses is, in fact, consistent with the evolving knowledge of the virus and leading-edge strategy on lockdowns. As long as capacity limits and masks are in place, we should be able to keep more businesses open without creating much in the way of additional risk.

However, despite identifying household gatherings as the No. 1 source of transmission, Roussin confirmed that Manitoba may allow up to two non-household members to visit other households indoors, and up to five can attend backyard outdoor gatherings.

However, despite identifying household gatherings as the No. 1 source of transmission, Roussin confirmed that Manitoba may allow up to two non-household members to visit other households indoors, and up to five can attend backyard outdoor gatherings.

The proposal to ease up on household and social gatherings is puzzling, to say the least. So much so that it seems exceedingly likely that it is the work of Premier Brian Pallister, who was not present with Roussin on Tuesday.

The premier is constantly looking at opportunities to win back the trust of his citizens. Although he claimed late last year he was OK with filling the role of the Grinch who “stole” Christmas from Manitobans, sources say he worries constantly about his plummeting popularity and continues to believe it is due to his decision to keep social and economic restrictions in place.

The decision to allow people to visit each other’s households, even in small numbers, seems like a pretty obvious, if futile, attempt to win back some of the support he lost through our second surge of COVID-19.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES The province is expanding the Manitoba Bridge Grant, Premier Brian Pallister said Tuesday.

But Pallister should be careful. His sagging personal and political popularity has little to do with pandemic restrictions; polls show Manitobans lost faith in him and his government because he hesitated when more decisive action was needed.

Efforts to buy back public support with risky public health decisions is likely to backfire.

The epidemiological theme that connects the proposals on the economic side of the equation is risk; public health officials identified those places that do not pose much risk because they do not require “prolonged indoor contact” and where people can be physically distanced and wear masks. That makes sense because, as we all know now, the longer you spend indoors in a public place, the greater your risk of acquiring the virus.

So, the reason why you can get a haircut but not a tattoo ends up as a rather simple matter: it takes about half an hour to get a haircut, but most people need to spend hours in a chair getting a tattoo.

The same goes for retail businesses and movie theatres or church services. Although capacities may be similar, people spend much more time at a movie or a church service than they would shopping for groceries or alcohol.

It also explains why food services were left out of this round of proposals. The length of time people spend in a bar or restaurant tends to be longer, and people can’t wear masks while they consume food and beverages.

And no matter how you slice it, the proposal to allow small, indoor household gatherings doesn’t really fit with the approach taken with economic restrictions.

And no matter how you slice it, the proposal to allow small, indoor household gatherings doesn’t really fit with the approach taken with economic restrictions.

You could perhaps justify the outdoor gathering proposal within the broader strategy. But allowing two close friends or extended family members to come to your home poses a much greater risk of transmission than getting a haircut or shopping for non-essential items in a retail store. Inviting someone into your house involves prolonged indoor contact that, in most cases, will not involve physical distancing or non-medical mask use.

There is also the concern that some Manitobans, having been given an inch in the social gathering restrictions, will inevitably take a yard and start allowing larger groups into their homes.

It is getting easier to tell when Roussin is discussing something that he thinks is scientifically and medically justifiable, and when he’s delivering a message formulated by the premier.

Roussin’s language at the Tuesday news conference was pretty unambiguous. He talked about separating restrictions based on risk, particularly when it comes to prolonged indoor contact. He also talked over and over again about the need to be exceedingly cautious about lifting any social or economic restriction so as not to trigger another outbreak.

The decision to allow limited interaction between households simply does not fit within that language or the rationale being used to determine which restrictions can be lifted and which need to stay in place.

Pallister has reserved final decision on these proposals until Thursday. One can only hope that he, or someone around him, comes to their senses by then.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Dan Lett

Dan Lett
Columnist

Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.

History

Updated on Tuesday, January 19, 2021 8:14 PM CST: Updates lede graph.

Updated on Wednesday, January 20, 2021 8:01 AM CST: Changes podiatry to pedorthists

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