OTTAWA — Premier Heather Stefanson says Manitoba is one of the strictest provinces for COVID-19 rules, but a federal analysis puts the middle province right in the centre of the pack.

OTTAWA — Premier Heather Stefanson says Manitoba is one of the strictest provinces for COVID-19 rules, but a federal analysis puts the middle province right in the centre of the pack.

Economists with the Bank of Canada have been charting each province’s mix of pandemic responses and assigning scores that allow some objective comparison of stringency. As of their latest assessment (Jan. 19), Manitoba ranked sixth out of the 10 provinces.

That’s according to a model based off Oxford University methodology the federal bank had modified to fit the Canadian context, which the Stefanson government disputes.

The model puts Manitoba in the middle for most of the pandemic, yet it led its peers Nov. 5-17, 2021, as other provinces pared down restrictions.

However, Manitoba has since been surpassed by peers who sought to significantly constrain transmission of the highly contagious Omicron variant around the holidays.

The central bank provided the Free Press with its detailed scoring data, which included nearly 100,000 data points on what restrictions have been implemented, but not whether people have complied.

As of this month, those data ranked Manitoba as the second-least stringent province for personal gathering restrictions, because of vaccinated people can mix with different groups of unvaccinated people, though in smaller numbers.

In addition, people can meet in a sequence of unrelated groups, instead of the steady bubble most Atlantic provinces prescribe.

Manitoba also scores lower on enforcement for individuals, as it joins only British Columbia in issuing fines under $2,000. The other eight provinces have pricier tickets, and some such as Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island threaten jail time.

Stefanson’s office argued the analysis doesn’t give enough to clout to the province for having a maximum fine of $1,000,000 for repeat offenders.

However, Manitoba did get some weight in stringency by allowing more than just police to issue tickets, with fines that apply instantly instead of requiring a tribunal process.

Yet, the keystone province also ranked lower on workplace closures, because some other provinces require all workers to stay home whenever possible. For example, Quebec and Newfoundland ranked higher because of policies that recommend against unnecessary trips, such as Quebec’s recently lifted curfew.

However, Manitoba did rank higher than average on fines for businesses, internal travel restrictions such as its northern travel ban, and on cancelling public events.

Doctors have criticized the Manitoba government for not increasing restrictions since Dec. 28, when it made changes they argue weren’t enough to address mounting hospitalizations.

In response, Stefanson has repeatedly argued Manitoba’s restrictions are already strict enough. For example, she noted Jan. 18 other provinces are allowing the public to gather for NHL hockey games.

"We have among the most stringent restrictions in the country," the premier told reporters. "Some of the larger gatherings are not happening here, and that’s where we know that the spread is."

Longtime political scientist Paul Thomas argued that messaging is meant to counter a widespread sentiment Manitoba has been too lax in either its restrictions or how well they’re actually enforced.

"All governments practise blame-avoidance strategies; they want to take credit for good things that happen and they want to minimize the blame that’s assigned to them," said Thomas, a University of Manitoba professor emeritus.

He noted the recurring polls show Manitobans have had an appetite for some of the stricter measures that are less popular among parts of the PC government’s base, such as rural libertarians and small businesses.

In a statement, Stefanson’s office argued the province is stricter than its peers because its per capita enforcement rate is the highest in Western Canada, and restrictions have intentionally been changed to reflect the levels in its pandemic response system.

"According to our research, Manitoba has implemented and maintained among the strictest public health orders in the country to protect the health system and our most vulnerable communities," wrote spokeswoman Olivia Billson.

"In many cases, Manitoba has imposed restrictions earlier and for a longer period of time compared to most other Canadian jurisdictions," she wrote, noting the province was the first to roll out a proof-of-vaccination card.

More recently, Stefanson has faced heavy criticism for announcing she was shifting Manitoba’s main objective away from trying to control the coronavirus’ spread toward mitigating severe outcomes.

The premier has tried to walk back her comments it’s up to individuals to make sure cases decline. Her government said voluntarily paring down gatherings would mean a quicker response to normal, while also saying everyone can assume they’ll personally encounter the Omicron variant in the coming weeks.

"She expressed it so ineptly that she got herself into a lot of trouble, and damage was done to her reputation," Thomas said.

He said all governments like to avoid coercive policies that attract push-back, and the PCs, in particular, were elected on pledges to cut red tape and an ideology to limit government intervention.

"She has a political base to worry about; some swing constituencies that are not guaranteed Conservative victories. So she doesn’t want to come down too hard in saying, we’ll lock things down again, like the heavy restrictions you might have."

Thomas added it’s extremely difficult to measure the scope and intensity of regulations, such as how well things are actually enforced. He’s faced that challenge when studying public services contracted out to private operators.

Provinces have shifted their stringency as COVID-19 cases have mounted and dropped, along with public support for such measures.

In May 2021, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association reported Manitoba had the highest enforcement of COVID-19 fines on a population basis during the second wave, among the five provinces with reliable data.

That reported noted Manitoba had taken the rare step of hiring private security companies to enforce those sanctions.

It is hard to measure how strictly Manitoba enforces restrictions, as the provinces only publishes the name of businesses that get fined and not groups.

After the Free Press reported last month on illegal churches who gather in southern Manitoba barns, the government said fines are disproportionately levelled in the Southern Health region. The province has only started publishing data on how ticketing varies by area as of a month ago.

— with files from Danielle Da Silva

Dylan Robertson

Dylan Robertson
Parliamentary bureau chief

In Ottawa, Dylan enjoys snooping through freedom-of-information requests and asking politicians: "What about Manitoba?"