A newly-minted Manitoba cabinet minister spent a month in Florida as COVID-19 ravaged the province and Ottawa advised against non-essential travel.

A newly-minted Manitoba cabinet minister spent a month in Florida as COVID-19 ravaged the province and Ottawa advised against non-essential travel.

A source close to Doyle Piwniuk, who was sworn in as transportation and infrastructure minister in Tuesday’s cabinet shuffle, said the Turtle Mountain MLA spent close to four weeks in the Sunshine State with his family before returning Jan. 7.

Piwniuk, who was first elected in a 2014 byelection, was not made available for an interview Wednesday.

A statement from his press secretary said the MLA would have stayed home — had the federal advisory against international travel been issued before he left.

"Minister Piwniuk drove to the United States on Dec. 11, 2021, to tend to maintenance of his property. The federal advisory on non-essential travel went out on Dec. 15, and the (Manitoba) premier’s orders against international travel on Dec. 17. The minister had departed [before] both directives were issued, otherwise he would not have travelled."

When asked if she had any concerns about her new cabinet appointee choosing to leave the country last month, Premier Heather Stefanson’s office replied by email.

"Minister Piwniuk had already left the province before the federal and provincial travel recommendations were issued," press secretary Olivia Billson wrote. "I am confident… Piwniuk followed all public health measures and protocols in place prior to, during and after his travel period."

NDP public affairs critic Malaya Marcelino said the "decision does show poor judgment."

"Doctors here in Manitoba were issuing warnings and asking us to have more restrictions than what public health was even calling for to get ready for Omicron (variant of the novel coronavirus) as best as we could," said Notre Dame MLA.

In early December, the World Health Organization was signalling the fast-spreading variant was on the move. On Dec. 10, federal Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos issued a warning: "It should be a serious alarm bell. There is uncertainty and risks with travelling in other countries over the next few weeks."

Duclos said that day an advisory against non-essential travel could soon come: "My advice to Canadians is, be extremely prudent when thinking about travelling."

On Dec. 15, when Ottawa warned Canadians against all non-essential international travel, Piwniuk was already in the United States.

"He’s a very sweet person and is very respectful all the time, but I do think that he made a mistake in travelling at that time," Marcelino said. "As political leaders, we need to do better and be role models."

In an interview Dec. 21, Stefanson said she instructed the Tory cabinet and caucus not to travel abroad. She didn’t mention a caucus member was already out of the country.

"She tried to make it seem like everyone was home and doing their part," Marcelino said Wednesday.

For someone who was soon to become a minister of the Crown, taking off to a sun destination amid warnings a new COVID-19 variant was spreading globally isn’t setting a good example, said Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont.

"We have the Omicron blowing up with all sorts of warnings," he said. "It’s really unfortunate that you would make that decision. I think it’s bad judgment."

carol.sanders@freepress.mb.ca

Carol Sanders

Carol Sanders
Legislature reporter

After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.