Coming soon: a return to normal, starring fully vaccinated Manitobans.

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Coming soon: a return to normal, starring fully vaccinated Manitobans.

As of Saturday, when the next phase of Manitoba's reopening plan kicks in, movie theatres, museums and casinos will reopen to fully vaccinated people. Those who are football fans will be allowed to attend a Winnipeg Blue Bombers game next month.

Premier Brian Pallister: “Good for Manitobans. Thanks so much for doing that."

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Premier Brian Pallister: “Good for Manitobans. Thanks so much for doing that."

Premier Brian Pallister announced a long list of new freedoms on Wednesday and praised Manitobans for getting vaccinated quickly enough that restrictions can be lifted sooner under his government's reopening plan. The vaccination target was met one month early, he said. About 77 per cent of Manitobans had received a first dose and 59 per cent had two doses.

"Good for Manitobans. Thanks so much for doing that," he said.

Under the changes, even people who aren't fully vaccinated can meet in private homes. As many as five people can be hosted inside, while 25 people can visit outdoors. In public places, 25 people will be allowed to gather indoors and 125 can gather outdoors.

No business is required to be closed under the rules, although some activities will be subject to certain restrictions.

Christian Stringer, owner of the Palomino Club in downtown Winnipeg.

JESSE BOILY / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Christian Stringer, owner of the Palomino Club in downtown Winnipeg.

Dancing at a nightclub, for example, is still a no-no. That doesn’t sit well with Palomino Club owner Christian Stringer. Unlike a lounge or restaurant, the club relies on live bands and dancing to stay in business.

"That's what people want to see. They don't want to be held back anymore. This is long enough," Stringer said, adding he’s been getting 40 to 50 calls a night from people asking if the club is open for dancing. It’s been closed nearly nine months, with just an outdoor patio open. Stringer said he figured indoor mask requirements would remain in place, but he had hoped the new rules would allow for outdoor dancing.

Stringer expressed frustration that dance studios will be able to open — at half capacity — and the Bombers game was given the go-ahead, yet activities at his club are still restricted and he hasn’t been able to rehire employees.

"That's what people want to see. They don't want to be held back anymore. This is long enough." — Palomino Club owner Christian Stringer

"I would like the full staff back, but I can't right now because of the restrictions. I can't put them back to work."

In the second stage of a three-part summer reopening plan, fully vaccinated Manitobans will be allowed to attend movie theatres, casinos, museums, bingo halls and galleries at 50 per cent capacity. 

The new rules are not surprising considering Manitoba’s declining infection rates and increase in vaccinations, said University of Manitoba virologist Jason Kindrachuk.

Reopening plan 'hypocritical'

Incoming public-health orders that expand gathering sizes but don't allow dancing at bars and nightclubs are "hypocritical," says the head of Manitoba's Nightclub and Entertainment Association.

"It's been very hypocritical, a lot of these decisions that they're making," said Scotty Townsend, president of the association that represents 13 nightclubs and bars that have live-entertainment licences.

Incoming public-health orders that expand gathering sizes but don't allow dancing at bars and nightclubs are "hypocritical," says the head of Manitoba's Nightclub and Entertainment Association.

"It's been very hypocritical, a lot of these decisions that they're making," said Scotty Townsend, president of the association that represents 13 nightclubs and bars that have live-entertainment licences.

Townsend said the owners had hoped under the phase-two reopening that outdoor patios would be allowed to operate at full capacity with dancing and music until 2 a.m.

Instead, under public-health orders set to take effect Saturday, bars and nightclubs will be permitted to stay open two hours later — to midnight instead of 10 p.m. — and won't have to serve food with each order of liquor. The businesses can be open at half-capacity indoors, but activities such as dancing aren't allowed, and people can only sit together if they live together or are all fully vaccinated. At outdoor patios, the eight-person per-table rule still applies.

"You’re changing our entire business model. It’s not how nightclubs work," Townsend said.

He said he knows of at least six bars that have shut down permanently because of the pandemic and a few more are barely hanging on.

Nightclub owners didn't expect a full return to normal indoors at this stage, he said, but the ability to stay open two hours later isn't much help.

The association formed recently to lobby government officials on behalf of nightclub owners who've been hard hit by the pandemic. Townsend said he has tried to communicate with the provincial government for six months but his requests have been met with boilerplate replies. 

He said the impending orders are a signal Manitobans will have to assess their own comfort level while more transmissible COVID-19 variants are still circulating and some pockets of the population are unvaccinated.

"It's not easy to navigate. We're all, I think, going through this indecision right now, and the complexity of having been (under) restrictions for over a year and having things move in a different direction is psychologically very different and it's very impactful."

There’s still a lack of transmission data about how fully vaccinated people can transmit the virus, and what is known changes as new variants emerge. Kindrachuk said he would still feel more comfortable wearing a mask and maintaining distance in an indoor setting, particularly one with no vaccination entry requirements. (Indoor mask requirements remain in place in Manitoba).

"I think you want to be cautious. How long that cautiousness has to remain, I think, is a question. We literally just have to keep watching what the data says," Kindrachuk said.

Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba's chief provincial public health officer.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba's chief provincial public health officer.

Manitoba is ahead of schedule in its reopening plans, chief provincial public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin said. More services are expected to require proof of vaccination. The province is still working on getting vaccination cards and complete immunization records out to everyone who needs them, he said. Still, details such as how visitors from other provinces will prove they’ve been fully vaccinated haven’t been worked out.

Even as the provincial case count and test positivity rate declines, several Manitobans are severely ill with COVID-19. As of Wednesday, 129 COVID-19 patients were in hospital, including 33 in intensive care. Two ICU patients from Manitoba are being treated in Ontario facilities.

"... there’s less and less unimmunized Manitobans, so as we’re moving forward in a fairly cautious manner, our numbers support this reopening." — Dr. Brent Roussin

"We see very few fully vaccinated people needing admission to the hospital or to the ICU, and you can see with each day, there’s less and less unimmunized Manitobans, so as we’re moving forward in a fairly cautious manner, our numbers support this reopening. We’re going to do so cautiously, we’re going to see what happens over the next incubation period or so…" Roussin said.

Manitoba is set to fully reopen by Labour Day — if enough Manitobans have been vaccinated. To meet that goal, the vaccine task force still needs to administer 24,000 first doses and 87,000 second doses, Premier Brian Pallister said Wednesday. He said it’s possible to accomplish in a week if enough Manitobans are willing to get the shots.

When the province announced its summer reopening plan on June 10, it promised to lift restrictions in stages, according to vaccine uptake. As long as three-quarters of Manitobans had received a first dose, and half had a second dose, by the August long weekend, the provincial government promised to reopen businesses to 50 per cent capacity.

On Wednesday, Manitoba had 53 new cases of COVID-19.

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Twitter: @thatkatiemay

Katie May

Katie May
Reporter

Katie May reports on courts, crime and justice for the Free Press.