BRANDON — The Wheat City has become ground zero for the COVID-19 pandemic in Manitoba.
First there was the cluster at Paul’s Hauling, a trucking company that sends drivers across the country. Then there was the rash of positive test results among employees at Maple Leaf, a slaughterhouse that sits on the outskirts of the city.
But now the situation has become dire enough the provincial government has declared Brandon — and the surrounding Prairie Mountain health region — as "code orange," the second-worst risk assessment it has at its disposal during the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Manitoba’s chief public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin first announced the designation — and the tighter restrictions that come with it — on Aug. 20.
However, those restrictions — which will see people mandated to wear masks at all indoor public places and during all public gatherings, be they indoor or outdoor — did not go into effect until today, leading some critics to question why there was a delay.
"There is always a balance," Roussin said Sunday when asked about the three-day gap between the announcement and implementation of the code orange restrictions.
"We’ve had situations (before) where we’ve implemented things without notice and then the first question is, ‘Why didn’t you give notice?’ It is a balance. It’s a fair question, but we’re working to find that right balance."
Beginning today, people in the region will be forced to wear masks at parks and beaches, while out and about in their city or town, and at all civic facilities. Indoor and outdoor gatherings will be limited to 10 people.
On the eve of the new restrictions, Manitoba announced 72 new cases of COVID-19 — the highest daily total the province has seen since the start of the pandemic.
Forty-five of those cases came from the Prairie Mountain region, and Roussin said officials are seeing increased signs of community transmission of the virus in the region.
The worst cluster in Brandon has been connected to Maple Leaf, although the provincial government has stressed that it has not found evidence of workplace transmission. Nevertheless, 70 employees at the slaughterhouse — which employs many immigrants — have tested positive for the virus.
On Friday afternoon, a steady stream of vehicles could be seen leaving Maple Leaf, coming down an extended driveway from the gated plant and turning onto the dirt road of Richmond Avenue East on the outskirts of the city.
The plant has become the site of a battle between the company — which, just this past weekend, mandated employees work overtime despite the rash of positive cases amid the pandemic — and the United Food and Commercial Workers local 832, a union representing 2,000 employees at the plant.
The best evidence the province has, according to Roussin, suggests the spike in cases associated with Maple Leaf has not come from workplace transmission, but "a lot of gatherings (and) a lot of multi-family households" among employees.
Just how serious the situation in the region is at this time remains unclear. In part, this is because the provincial government has not released the five-day rest positivity rate for the Prairie Mountain region. On Sunday, Roussin refused to commit to a timeline for when — or if — that information will be made public.
But what is clear is cases are climbing, and Roussin said Manitobans in general — not just those in the region — have got to get back to the basics.
"We’ve lost track of some of those fundamentals and that’s what’s brought us some increased case activity," Roussin said.
Dean Hammond, Brandon’s acting city manager, said the municipal administration worked hard this past weekend to interpret and prepare for the new restrictions associated with the code orange designation.
"Ever since the code orange was announced, we’ve obviously been working quite frantically since then, trying to interpret what this means for us and how we’re going to respond and prepare," Hammond said.
"We take the majority of our direction from experts in the health field and Dr. Roussin and we plan our response activities accordingly."
Hammond conceded that low cases totals in Brandon likely led to a false sense of security in the community — an assertion echoed by others who spoke to the Free Press for this story — but said he believes the city has done a good job handling the pandemic so far.
"Our numbers were low for a long time and remaining static. I think that gave people a level of confidence that both through the efforts of the province and health experts, and through our efforts at the City of Brandon, that things were under control and going well," Hammond said.
"But, as everyone expected, we were anticipating a second round of this and now it’s here. No one likes this, but, of course, we have to deal with it and we will."
Ryan Thorpe likes the pace of daily news, the feeling of a broadsheet in his hands and the stress of never-ending deadlines hanging over his head.