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Doctors and politicians are welcoming strict new public-health restrictions, although some worry the crackdown has come too late in the fight against COVID-19.

The orders, effective at 12:01 a.m. Friday, ban almost all indoor social gatherings and prohibit retail in-person sales of non-essential items. The measures will be in effect for at least the next three weeks.

"These orders are for the sole purpose to save Manitobans' lives, and so anyone who's falling outside these orders, you're undermining that very clear purpose of saving lives," chief provincial public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin said told a news conference Thursday alongside Premier Brian Pallister.

The clampdown targets busy big-box retailers and will require stores to stop selling non-essential items Friday and, as of Saturday morning, they will have to rope off or restrict access to the items, as well. Businesses allowing in-store purchases of the items can be fined, possibly exceeding the $5,000 penalty the public-health order currently sets out, Pallister said.

The new rules also mean Manitobans are not allowed to have visitors in their homes. As of 12:01 a.m. Friday, no one is allowed to be in a household where they don't live unless they're providing services for health care, home care, child care, tutoring, delivering items or certain other exceptions, including people responding to emergencies.

What's "essential?"

The measures announced Thursday apply to businesses that are not addressed in Schedule A of the public health orders. For example, liquor and cannabis stores may continue to open and sell products.

Chief public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin said the province could alter the orders to add items that should be listed as essential or vice versa. Business operators with questions are being encouraged to contact the province via its website.

Essential items set out by the public health order include:

The measures announced Thursday apply to businesses that are not addressed in Schedule A of the public health orders. For example, liquor and cannabis stores may continue to open and sell products.

Chief public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin said the province could alter the orders to add items that should be listed as essential or vice versa. Business operators with questions are being encouraged to contact the province via its website.

Essential items set out by the public health order include:

• food, beverages and food preparation products;
• personal care products such as soap and dental care products;
• health-related products such as prescription drugs and vitamins;
• mobility or assistive devices;
• baby and child-care accessories such as diapers and formula;
• household cleaning products, safety devices, batteries and lightbulbs;
• outdoor winter apparel such as jackets and boots;
• personal protective equipment for the workplace;
• pet food and supplies;
• postage stamps;
• cellphones and cellphone accessories;
• parts and supplies for all types of motor vehicles and watercraft;
• major household appliances;
• hunting, fishing and trapping supplies;
• tools and hardware;
• materials for home maintenance, repair or construction; and
• property maintenance products such as shovels.

- Government of Manitoba

Residents who live alone are allowed to designate one person they can visit or have visits from. The rules don't specify the designated person has to also live alone, but Roussin made clear that visiting someone in a multi-person household goes against the spirit of the order.

"People who live alone could be even more vulnerable to the restrictions that we have here. We want to ensure that they have access to some of that ability to have face-to-face time with others, and we felt that having a designated, one other person that they could do this with, still meets the intent of the order, still dramatically decreasing people's contacts, while still allowing them to have some of that connection," he said.

Doctors Manitoba, which represents more than 3,000 physicians in the province, issued a statement in support of the restrictions.

"Physicians have never been more concerned about the escalating numbers of COVID-19 cases," the statement said. "There are 40 times as many active cases in Manitoba today than the peak last spring, and 20 times more cases in hospital."

Roussin reported 475 new cases and eight deaths as of Thursday morning. Manitoba still has the highest per capita rate of new COVID-19 cases in Canada.

"We cannot allow these numbers of cases and deaths to become our norm," he said, adding officials expect to see results of the strict measures within 14 days.

The province was criticized last week for failing to change orders allowing household gatherings with up to five additional visitors. And while small businesses selling non-essential items were ordered to shut down, larger grocery stores, pharmacies and big-box retailers continued to sell the items.

The measures announced Thursday are aimed at closing those loopholes and preventing the possibility of bargain-hunting crowds of Black Friday shoppers.

"We advised strongly to only go to the store for absolute essentials. We pleaded with people to think about our health-care providers that are at risk and how hospital capacity is becoming stretched," Roussin said.

"Despite that, we saw people gathering at rallies, we saw crowded parking lots at big-box stores, we saw people continue to go out for non-essential items, so we're left with no choice but to announce further measures to protect Manitobans to limit the spread of this virus."

Premier Brian Pallister (right) and Dr. Brent Roussin, chief provincial public health officer, announce further restrictions Thursday afternoon.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Premier Brian Pallister (right) and Dr. Brent Roussin, chief provincial public health officer, announce further restrictions Thursday afternoon.

Stores will be required to limit capacity to 25 per cent or 250 people, whichever is lower.

Items such as food, soap, toothpaste, household cleaning products, mobility devices, child-care items, pet supplies, winter coats and boots, home-maintenance supplies and cellphones are considered essential under the order.

Manitobans will be allowed to order non-essential items online or by phone for delivery or curbside pickup. They include such things as clothing (other than baby clothes or outdoor apparel) sporting goods, books, toys and cosmetics.

Outdoor gatherings with a maximum five people are allowed, as are religious ceremonies such as weddings and baptisms, with a maximum of five people.

"We're left with no choice but to announce further measures to protect Manitobans to limit the spread of this virus." – Dr. Brent Roussin

NDP Leader Wab Kinew welcomed the new measures, but chastised the government for taking so long to implement them.

"I support the restrictions. I think they were the right move several weeks ago when the doctors asked for them. And unfortunately because of the slow response, I fear that we here in Manitoba, we’ve lost a few weeks in the fight against COVID," he said.

"I really just hope that Manitobans take the message that this is what we’ve got to do in order to try to save the holidays... try to save the school year."

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Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont said the government is being reactive rather than proactive.

"We should not be in a position where people are having to continually plead with the government to take action, but that’s where we are at," he said, adding it’s important that the province now follow through with financial supports for individuals and businesses.

"We cannot keep telling people to stay home and go broke," he said. He noted that there is no longer an eviction ban protecting people who cannot afford to pay their rent.

— With files from Larry Kusch

katie.may@freepress.mb.ca

Katie May

Katie May
Justice reporter

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

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