There might be an early Valentine’s Day gift for Manitoba businesses, as the province announced a list of pandemic reopenings are on the table.
It remains to be seen, however, exactly how the new measures will work — and whether the "cautious" restrictions being floated will be extended with provincial relief programs.
At a news conference Thursday, Premier Brian Pallister said it’s time to consider further opening the economy "in a safe and sustainable manner," given the recent trajectory of low COVID-19 case counts.
Restaurants, gyms, nail salons and tattoo parlours are among the list of services being looked at to reopen in a reduced 25-per-cent capacity, when current public-health orders expire on Feb. 13.
"This is a list of proposals, so it may not look exactly like this as we start to implement it," said chief provincial public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin, adding that Manitoba will still remain under the critical, code-red level in the pandemic response system.
That means the province isn’t looking to change regulations about household-only gatherings. So, if they’re allowed to reopen, businesses will have to self-police rules about limiting customers to household members within individual groups.
Asked about how that will work, Roussin said he doesn’t have "any definitive" answers. "What I would say is that, because this is a broad loosening at a critical stage, we’re going to do whatever we can to ensure these (orders) are adhered to," he added.
Pallister assured it’s "eminently easy" to keep track of who comes inside certain businesses, like restaurants. "And it will be a necessary part of your responsibilities in reopening," he said.
Business owners that spoke with the Free Press said that’s not exactly how they feel.
For them, not only is Thursday’s announcement cause for confusion about how to plan ahead, but the measures will also provide very little time before hiring entirely new staff for their busiest day of the season.
"I’m not sure I’ll be able to reopen on Valentine’s Day and that’s kind of sad," said Hayley McMurray, manager of Marion Street Eatery. "It’s frustrating, yes, but honestly, even the idea of allowing us to open at all is the best thing we’ve heard in weeks and weeks."
McMurray said her restaurant will be shifting its hours to get as much dine-in business possible within the capacity limits. "We have to be able to make up for the fact that of course we can’t have 56 customers at a time like we used to be able to," she said.
"We’ll probably only be able to have like 14, maybe 15 people in a safe way."
Tony Siwicki, owner of Silver Heights Restaurant and Lounge on Portage Avenue, said it’s an "expensive conundrum for any business owner to resolve" within such a time crunch.
"On top of all the cleaning protocols we’ll have to do, we also have to figure out whether operating with a full staff for 20 out of 100 tables is even worth it," he said. "Then, you’re asking us to police our customers to be from the same house? It’s just all very confusing."
Savita Bawa-Verinder and Ivan Verinder who co-own My Gym St. Vital said they’re trying to figure out where their facility for children will fall under the new measures.
"We’re ready to go as far as openings are concerned — I mean we’ve done it before," said Bawa-Verinder. "But I’m not sure what the government has in place for us. I think, for now, we’ll keep mostly to the online classes we’ve been doing."
A provincial spokesperson could not say definitively whether the facility will be allowed to reopen.
"There’s quite a bit of good news here for some businesses, but certainly not for others," said Jonathan Alward, Prairies director for the Canadian Federation of Independent Business.
"We were certainly hoping to see an inclination for increased aid because if businesses open with this limited capacity, they can’t access some of the federal grants anymore," said Alward. "And at the same time, provincial programs like the Bridge Grant haven’t been extended either."
Loren Remillard, president of the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce, said ideally restaurants would want to be opened at full capacity by the province.
"The 25 per cent capacity represents a step forward," he said. "The evidence, as Dr. Roussin said, has shown us that cases haven’t been coming from there.
"For many, restocking and assembling staff will take time. For some they may have to delay opening. More notification is always better."
Manitobans have been asked to provide their feedback on the new restrictions — a draft of which can be expected Tuesday, with a final version of the public-health orders shortly after that.
Temur Durrani reports on the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic for the Winnipeg Free Press.