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Gathering strength: province relaxes COVID-19 group restrictions

Phase 2 reopening details expected as soon as Thursday

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Manitoba is on track with its COVID-19 recovery plan, announcing an increase in the allowed size of public gatherings and prepping for the reopening of further business and service sectors.

Starting Friday, gatherings will be limited to 25 people indoors and 50 people outdoors, instead of the 10-person maximum imposed April 1, chief provincial public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin said Wednesday.

Restaurant association waiting for good news

Shaun Jeffrey, executive director of the Manitoba Restaurant and Food Services Association, said he's heard eat-in establishments will be able to open at half-capacity starting June 1.

"We have been getting some feedback that this is coming, but we are waiting for confirmation," he said Wednesday.

"When we do hear, we're going to be trying to open in the most flexible and intelligent manner; we want to make our customers and our staff feel comfortable."

Shaun Jeffrey, executive director of the Manitoba Restaurant and Food Services Association, said he's heard eat-in establishments will be able to open at half-capacity starting June 1.

"We have been getting some feedback that this is coming, but we are waiting for confirmation," he said Wednesday.

"When we do hear, we're going to be trying to open in the most flexible and intelligent manner; we want to make our customers and our staff feel comfortable."

Jeffrey said he's watched the industry being pummelled financially for more than two months, many owners doing what they could to stay afloat with curbside pickup and delivery services. In the last two weeks, the province has allowed restaurants to open outdoor patios at half-capacity with appropriate table and patron distancing.

But there have been some casualties, he said.

"We appreciate Manitobans supporting our restaurants through this," he said. "This pandemic has forced our industry to adapt and be resilient.

"I think it's an unknown what will happen. We don't know what the new normal looks like; it is scary, but there is no industry that will fight harder."

kevin.rollason@freepress.mb.caa

"Public gatherings" include social get-togethers, worship, weddings and funerals, according to Manitoba's Restoring Safe Services plan.

"It's not a return to normal," Roussin said. "We still need to take those precautions: washing hands, maintaining that physical distancing wherever possible, and it's vitally important to be staying home when you're ill."

Starting May 29, outdoor visits will be allowed at personal care homes, Shared Health nursing chief Lanette Siragusa said.

Care home residents haven't been allowed visitors since March 17, when novel coronavirus restrictions were put in place.

"Now that we have the warmer weather, there is an opportunity to allow increased visitor access for care home residents," Siragusa said Wednesday.

Manitobans have been cautious and vigilant in preventing the spread of the virus, thus public health restrictions can be eased, she said, thanking care home residents, their families and friends for being patient.

"We know it hasn't been easy, but this commitment has been successful in keeping Manitoba's COVID cases low," said Siragusa. "Our goal has been a balance that will enable for visits with loved ones to occur with the necessary precautions in place."

Those details are expected Thursday, Premier Brian Pallister said.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Those details are expected Thursday, Premier Brian Pallister said.

Care homes are establishing procedures and will be contacting families directly to provide details, including the start date, locations and hours for the such visits, she said.

A maximum of two visitors will be allowed at a time and they will be screened for COVID-19. No indoor visits are allowed for the foreseeable future.

For now, cooped-up Manitobans are getting a breather.

Gathering limits expanded to 50 outside, 25 inside

Weddings have been postponed, churches are empty, and loved ones have been kept apart for weeks at personal care homes.

In the last couple of weeks, retail businesses have been able to open at half capacity, restaurants could partially open their patios, and people can get their teeth cleaned or hair cut.

But now, after several recent days with no new cases of coronavirus, less than two dozen active cases in the province, and with only one person being treated in hospital, provincial public health officials said starting Friday the next easing of restrictions will let up to 50 Manitobans gather together outside while 25 can be around each other inside.

Here's what it means in some areas:

Weddings have been postponed, churches are empty, and loved ones have been kept apart for weeks at personal care homes.

In the last couple of weeks, retail businesses have been able to open at half capacity, restaurants could partially open their patios, and people can get their teeth cleaned or hair cut.

But now, after several recent days with no new cases of coronavirus, less than two dozen active cases in the province, and with only one person being treated in hospital, provincial public health officials said starting Friday the next easing of restrictions will let up to 50 Manitobans gather together outside while 25 can be around each other inside.

Here's what it means in some areas:

Weddings

Wedding planner Alexandra Younger, owner of Alexandra Lillian Weddings, said her phone began ringing almost non-stop the minute Public Health officials said they would allow expanded gatherings.

"I've spoken to quite a few caterers and others and everyone is excited," Younger said on Wednesday.

"So far it has just seemed as many people as possible were going to postpone their wedding until later this year or next -- everyone up until July has done this. But I specialize in smaller boutique weddings of between 100 to 160 so now, for my couples, it might be easier to reduce the guest book."

Younger said a smaller wedding would also help couples with various expenses, saving money in some areas while having the ability to spend more in others.

"Instead of paying for 20 floral arrangements on tables they could have three more elaborate ones -- or the wedding bouquet could be larger. This is very positive."

Churches

For several weeks now, people of all faiths have been limited to watching virtual services on a computer screen.

But Bishop Geoff Woodcroft, of the Diocese of Rupert's Land, said that could soon change for Anglicans and others thanks to the expansion of the number of people who can get together indoors and out.

"It means an incredible amount to us," Woodcroft said. "The big question will be how do we protect people.

"Some people have been pining to get to worship while others are terrified. But I won't do anything until Monday. We will need to set up appropriate protocols for cleaning and sanitizing before and after worship. How do we get people inside? How will be follow health protocols? How we can worship without putting people at risk."

Woodcroft said they also will want to remain inclusive and figure out a way to keep everyone safe so seniors and vulnerable people don't feel they are being left aside.

"There are many ways we could do it," he said. "A congregation with more than 25 people may want to do something throughout the week and not just on Sunday."

Personal-care homes

Since mid-March visitors -- including family members -- have been prevented from seeing loved ones in long- term care homes to reduce the chances of residents becoming infected with COVID-19. Now, the care homes are being told they have about a week to come up with a plan so that up to two visitors at a time can see the residents outside the facility once the visitors have been screened.

Heather Johnson, whose parents Albert and Wilma Oliver celebrated their 67th wedding anniversary apart last Saturday because he is in a personal-care home, said she doesn't know if her family will be able to take advantage of the new visitation system, but she's glad they are being put in place.

"I think it's fabulous," Johnson said on Wednesday.

"Let people see each other -- you really need that. It has been an awful long time since people have been together. My mother saw my dad for the first time in weeks yesterday (Tuesday) and he was so happy to see her -- mom means the world to him, absolutely the world."

kevin.rollason@freepress.mb.ca

On March 20, the province banned gatherings of more 50 people; on April 1, it reduced gatherings to no more than 10 people.

However, Wednesday's announcement allowing up to 50 to gather outdoors doesn't give soccer and slow-pitch leagues the green light, said Roussin.

"Right now, the previous orders regarding organized sports are in place pending our announcement on Phase 2 (of the reopening plan)," he said.

Those details are expected Thursday, Premier Brian Pallister said.

Manitoba's original plan for Phase 2, unveiled by Pallister on April 29, included allowing restaurants to reopen indoor spaces at 50 per cent of capacity, as well as personal services (such as manicures, film production) and non-contact children sports to resume "no earlier than June 1."

It also called for increasing gathering sizes around mid-May, but only if the province could prevent the spread of the virus and ramp up testing and contact tracing.

That goal has been met, Roussin said.

"We came out early to announce these group sizes to reflect to Manitobans that we're cognizant of restrictions in place," he said. "They were required, but we're going to lift them as soon as we can, cautiously."

Group size limits are arbitrary, Roussin said. When the global pandemic was first announced, some jurisdictions limited gatherings to 250 people and others to just two, he noted.

Roussin said he's reviewed the public health models and literature for what to expect with increased gathering sizes.

"These measures are not thought to have a significant increase in cases," he said, so long as physical-distancing measures are maintained and there's adequate testing and contact tracing capacity.

Ultimately, the success of the reopening will depend on Manitobans adopting a "new normal," said Roussin.

"You can't be attending groups if you're ill. The times of heading out with respiratory symptoms or when we're fighting a cold are over," he said. "We all have to be on the same page — employers, employees, the public — we can't be out and about when we have those symptoms."

Wearing a face mask is not enough in such cases, he said, when asked about the Public Health Agency of Canada now recommending non-medical masks but not making them mandatory.

"It's an added measure," said Roussin. "It shouldn't make you modify your behaviour regarding any of the other cautions we always talk about."

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.

Read full biography

History

Updated on Wednesday, May 20, 2020 at 5:36 PM CDT: Clarifies deficit.

6:58 PM: Writethru.

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