The province had to do something to shock Winnipeggers into compliance to help reduce the spread of COVID-19. Unfortunately for bars and restaurants, they’ve become the sacrificial lambs. There's little, if any, evidence of more transmission of the novel coronavirus in those establishments than anywhere else.
The government is shutting down all bars, beverage rooms, casinos and bingo halls in Winnipeg as of Monday in an effort to curb soaring COVID-19 cases in the city. Restaurants and lounges will see their group/table sizes reduced to five from 10, as well as an overall capacity limit of 50 per cent.
For some establishments, it could be the final nail in the coffin, following an initial shutdown earlier in the pandemic, as well as ongoing restrictions that have battered their bottom lines. People have lost jobs and more will likely follow.
So, why bars and restaurants? It’s the easiest and most politically palatable target. When pressed at least twice over the past week, Dr. Brent Roussin, the chief provincial public health officer, acknowledged there’s no evidence of more transmission in bars and restaurants than in other public places. It's just an easier sell to the public to impose restrictions on licensed establishments than it is for gyms, libraries or movie theatres.
Perhaps it’s the right call. Something had to be done. Winnipeg’s infection rate has skyrocketed in recent weeks, with the five-day test positivity rate reaching an alarming 6.3 per cent Friday. That’s fast approaching North Dakota’s seven-day average of 8.7 per cent. It’s higher than Minnesota’s 5.6 per cent rate. Left unchecked, it would likely affect Winnipeg’s hospital capacity, which would severely impact a wide range of health-care services, especially as influenza season nears.
Something had to be done. Winnipeg’s infection rate has skyrocketed in recent weeks, with the five–day test positivity rate reaching an alarming 6.3 per cent Friday. That’s fast approaching North Dakota’s seven–day average of 8.7 per cent.
What the government does have an obligation to do, though, is properly compensate businesses that are making the biggest sacrifices. Unlike in Quebec, where financial aid packages were unveiled the same day the government announced the shutdown of its bars and restaurants, the Pallister government made no such commitment Friday. When asked, Health Minister Cameron Friesen said it was too early to tell if there would be any additional funding.
That’s a major a failure. If bars, restaurants and other establishments have to take the fall for the greater good, they should be compensated for their losses. They’re forced to close their doors, or severely curtail operations, through no fault of their own. That may be an unavoidable consequence of imperfect public health measures during a time of crisis. If it is, the government should provide adequate support to those who are bearing the brunt of the interventions.
Friesen said the measures are only in place for two weeks. That’s cold comfort for businesses already struggling after months of mounting public health orders. Two weeks of shutdown could make the difference between solvency or bankruptcy. Besides, there’s no assurance the measures will be lifted after two weeks. Roussin said interventions would only be eased if Winnipeg’s case numbers subside and its test positivity rate falls.
Doing nothing was not an option for the province. A strong message had to be sent to change behaviour. Symptomatic people continue to frequent public places and attend social gatherings, including private parties. If that continues, more businesses and not-for-profit organizations will see further restrictions, including the possibility of more shutdowns, even though they may be blameless.
COVID-19 deaths per capita in Manitoba are still relatively low. Despite a recent increase in admissions, hospitals also have plenty of capacity (there were only 17 COVID-19 patients in Winnipeg hospitals Friday, including three in intensive care).
But that could change quickly, which is why additional measures were announced. There is no ideal way to impose those restrictions. Some will always pay a steeper price than others. In this case, it’s bars and restaurants.
If this is going to work, it won’t be because people have stopped going to bars for the next two weeks; it will be the result of changed behaviour across the board. It’s now up to the public to respond.
Tom has been covering Manitoba politics since the early 1990s and joined the Winnipeg Free Press news team in 2019.