Premier Brian Pallister wants to reopen Manitoba’s economy by easing COVID-19 restrictions on businesses as soon as the end of this month the Free Press has learned.
On Wednesday, the premier pulled back about easing restrictions, a week after stating the rules would almost certainly be relaxed. But senior government sources say Pallister remains "headstrong" about forging ahead with relaxing the rules quickly.
On Dec. 30, Pallister said Manitobans "lessened our personal freedom to save lives" under code-red restrictions, which have been in place since Nov. 12.
"We’re going to be floating ideas we think should happen with easing restrictions, but I can’t speak to what Dr. (Brent) Roussin and what Dr. (Jazz) Atwal will say to that yet."
Pallister has repeatedly said the economy, which helps fund health and social programs, is suffering, and that must be taken into account.
"So we need to make sure we’re doing everything we can to move into an open economy as soon as we possibly can," he said Wednesday.
Speaking to the Free Press on the condition they not be named, three Tory officials said the premier has his sights set on moving all of Manitoba from a critical code red lockdown to less strident code orange limitations by the beginning of February.
It would mean most businesses would be allowed to reopen with limited capacity (including hair salons, restaurants and clothing retailers), while indoor and outdoor gatherings of up 10 people will also be permitted.
"(Pallister) told us his idea of a benchmark for when restrictions should be eased is around a 100 or so daily cases — maybe even 180," a government official with knowledge of the Tories’ planning said Wednesday. "But more than that, a lot of it has to do with the pressure that he’s been facing from commerce and business groups."
"I think he believes we might not have to dedicate so many resources to rescue businesses if they were allowed to at least somewhat reopen," another senior Tory member told the Free Press.
When Manitoba phased out pandemic restrictions after the first wave of the coronavirus in the spring, the province had around 40 active cases with a single-digit increase per day or no increase at all in May.
"This time, everything is really quite different," said Cynthia Carr, an epidemiologist in Winnipeg. "We now have the realistic threat of a new strain, and even if a vaccine is providing good news, it’s certainly not enough to quickly ease restrictions and neither do we know for sure whether it will be effective against the new COVID strain detected in other provinces."
Carr said the province should not take a risky approach after "finally having a somewhat handle" on daily COVID-19 cases.
"Let public health guide economic and social policy because the way to have a healthy economy is by having healthy people, and we’re the ones that know the risk of a symptomatic spread," she said. "Period."
Business leaders, however, would welcome a lifting of some restrictions.
"As long as it’s safe and as long it’s achievable, of course that’s all we could want for our business community," said Loren Remillard, president of the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce.
"It’s definitely been a significant period since we’ve locked down completely," he said. "But now there’s enough research which shows how to find a sweet spot for reopening, and I think we should be looking at that for a realistic future of our economy surviving."
Jonathan Alward, Prairies director for the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, said the provincial government must continue to support local businesses regardless of restrictions.
"Reopening as quickly as possible is a make-or-break situation for many sectors," said Alward. "That doesn’t mean they won’t need support even after they’re allowed to reopen — a capacity limit is a capacity limit."
That’s certainly the case for Sam Rivait and Cait Bousfield’s new barbershop on Osborne Street. "At this point, we’ve been out of business for months and months now," said hair stylist Rivait, who co-owns Good Fortune.
"We’ve been getting message after message about the effect of not getting a haircut for all these months on people — it’s all so completely draining," she said.
Still, public health officials aren’t keen on the idea of reopening. Manitoba health leaders believe pandemic restrictions cannot be eased until test-positivity rates drop, hospitalization numbers decrease, and daily case counts decline.
"It’s premature right now to determine any changes to our restrictions," Dr. Brent Roussin, chief provincial public health officer, said Monday.
The province’s acting deputy public health officer echoed those statements Wednesday.
"Today’s numbers are a bit higher," Dr. Jazz Atwal said, announcing 10 more virus-related deaths and 176 new cases. "But those restrictions in place have made a difference and are continuing to make a difference."
Atwal said it’s too early to relay the full impact the holiday season will have on COVID-19 metrics.
Temur Durrani reports on the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic for the Winnipeg Free Press. Funding for this Free Press reporting position comes from the Government of Canada through the Local Journalism Initiative.
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