The province announced plans Wednesday to slowly reopen its economy, marking Manitoba’s first step towards its new normal.
But as restrictions begin to ease, polls suggest it may take some time for Manitobans to warm up to day-to-day activities such as visiting a bar or riding public transit.
According to the most recent weekly poll from Leger360 — which tracks Canadians' response to the COVID-19 pandemic on an ongoing basis — more than half of Manitoba and Saskatchewan residents report being comfortable allowing in-home renovations (61 per cent), and returning to places such as shopping malls (60 per cent) and farmers markets (56 per cent).
On the flipside, Manitobans appeared the least comfortable returning to daily activities, including going to the gym (19 per cent), attending large gatherings such as concerts or sporting events (18 per cent), going to bars (16 per cent) and taking public transit (17 per cent).
The difference in comfort levels comes down, in large part, to how confined each space appears to be, says Leger vice-president Eddie Sheppard.
"Bars and lounges and nightclubs are generally a smaller setting than a shopping mall and places like that, and you're likely to be more hands on," Sheppard said Wednesday.
"You’re going to the bathroom, you're using the glassware, you're sitting on seats people have been sitting on, so there's kind of an inability to distance yourself from others."
Coupled with confinement is the question of perceived cleanliness, which hinges on the visibility of cleaning procedures and the public’s trust in businesses’ commitment to cleaning, he said.
"When you go to a mall you can see the wet-floor signs out and you see people cleaning and you're more aware of that, whereas on transit you don't really see that," he said.
Comfort with public transit, in particular, has been low since the beginning of the pandemic, he said.
Of all regions, Manitoba and Saskatchewan respondents were the least comfortable returning to public transit, but the comfort level remains low across the board, with only one-fifth of all Canadian respondents agreeing they were comfortable getting back on the bus.
In Winnipeg, ridership decreased as much as 72 per cent in April, according to year-over-year data from Winnipeg Transit, resulting in a $6-million reduction in revenue for the city, decreased route options and widespread layoffs.
Despite the perceived lack of comfort from residents, Winnipeg’s transit union president Romeo Ignacio maintains that public transit will be critical to the province’s economic and social recovery.
"If the service is not there, or even if there’s not enough service, how are people going to move from one point to the other, especially when we start to open up?" Ignacio said Wednesday.
While some residents have the option to drive, Winnipeg Transit has a core ridership of what Sheppard calls "captive riders" — people who have no choice but to take the bus.
And more residents are expected to fall into that category as the financial aftershocks of the pandemic catch up with people being called back into work, Ignacio said.
"Every time you open up non-essential (businesses) there are a lot more people in the minimum-wage level that may not be able to actually take their car to go to work," he noted.
Public messaging will help restore trust, he said. Because riders may not necessarily see all the public-safety measures in effect on buses, transit operators will need to be clear about how people are being protected.
"Transit still plays the same role as it did before, it’s just now we are playing it on a different level where we cannot force 70 people into the bus because of social distancing," said Ignacio.
"If the city and the province (are) really determined to open Manitoba, the city and the province have to step up and make people aware that we, as a community, are doing everything to jump-start the economy but at the same time make it safe for everyone."
Julia-Simone Rutgers is a general-assignment reporter.
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Updated on Wednesday, April 29, 2020 at 6:27 PM CDT: Adds graphics