Manitoba is fast-tracking its reopening plans despite the rising threat of the Delta variant and warnings from an ICU doctor, who fears the provincial government is repeating the very mistakes it made in previous waves of the pandemic.

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Manitoba is fast-tracking its reopening plans despite the rising threat of the Delta variant and warnings from an ICU doctor, who fears the provincial government is repeating the very mistakes it made in previous waves of the pandemic.

Manitoba's loosening of restrictions welcomed

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MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS						</p>																	<p>Sachit Mehra owner manager of the East India Company which will be open starting Saturday with indoor seating it will be at 25 per cent capacity.						</p>
MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Sachit Mehra owner manager of the East India Company which will be open starting Saturday with indoor seating it will be at 25 per cent capacity.

Posted: 8:18 PM Jun. 23, 2021

Saturday is shaping up to be a grand opening for local businesses.

Stores can host more customers, restaurants can serve patrons inside, patios can reopen, gyms can switch on the lights again.

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With only the fully vaccinated protected from the dangerous Delta variant, the province’s early summer reopening plan, which was announced Wednesday, is not without risk, the premier and medical experts warned.

"It's very much a gamble, and we've been burned previous times," said Dr. Anand Kumar, an ICU physician at Health Sciences Centre, after the province announced that public health vaccination targets had been achieved sooner than expected and pandemic restrictions will begin rolling back this weekend.

Outdoor get-togethers with up to 25 people, haircuts, patio dining and a return to organized sport are among the activities that will be permitted as of Saturday morning. Fully vaccinated residents of personal care homes and congregate living spaces will be able to participate in social or communal activities.

"This is a good news day for Manitobans," Premier Brian Pallister said on Wednesday during a press conference with chief provincial public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin. "We are able to move forward with reopening Manitoba one week ahead of schedule. Now let’s keep it up."

Premier Brian Pallister presents the province's "Reopening Path" at the Legislative Building Wednesday.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Premier Brian Pallister presents the province's "Reopening Path" at the Legislative Building Wednesday.

Kumar warned Manitobans that we've been here before and the consequences were tragic.

"The last time we opened up, daily case counts were about 100, test positivity was at five per cent, and you know what happened."

What happened was a deadly third wave of COVID-19 that claimed the lives of 182 Manitobans and sent dozens of ICU patients out of province. On Wednesday, Manitoba's daily case count was 123 and its test positivity rate was 7.1 per cent.

The province's July 1 reopening target — which includes declining COVID-19 case counts, partially vaccinating 70 per cent of the eligible population, and fully vaccinating 25 per cent — was reached earlier this week. As of Wednesday, 71.6 per cent had received a first dose and 28.8 per cent were fully vaccinated.

"It's very much a gamble, and we've been burned previous times." — Dr. Anand Kumar

"What we're doing, there's a risk to it," said Kumar. That's mainly because of the spread of the highly transmissible Delta variant and the need for people to be fully vaccinated against it, he said.

"We're opening up at 25 per cent (fully vaccinated); England was at 50 per cent and was seeing a significant surge despite that because the Delta variant is so much more infectious," said Kumar.

There have been 164 confirmed cases of the Delta variant in Manitoba, 36 of which are of unknown acquisition, 18 are under investigation, four cases remain active and two deaths have been linked to it.

Dr Anand Kumar.

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Dr Anand Kumar.

Pallister said he understands reopening with the Delta variant circulating is risky but Manitobans deserve a reward for hitting the vaccination target. He noted Manitoba's reopening plan is more gradual and guarded than other provinces.

"We are going slower than a lot of other jurisdictions around us. We're doing that because we still have higher positivity test numbers. We still have a higher percentage of people for our size needing hospitalization and ICUs, and we're doing that recognizing that variants are with us and they are risky," Pallister said. "That's why getting that second vaccine is so critical because the effectiveness is boosted enormously when you get that second vaccine against the Delta variant."

Kumar said he's "grateful" Manitoba isn't following "reckless" Alberta and Saskatchewan, which plan to fully reopen on Canada Day and July 11, respectively, with 70 per cent of those eligible having received just one dose of vaccine.

New rules as of Saturday

New public health restrictions will take effect at 12:01 a.m. Saturday, allowing the following activities and gathering sizes:

• Outdoor gathering sizes on private property of 10 people, and to allow outdoor visitors to briefly access homes for essential activities (such as to use a washroom).

• Public outdoor gathering sizes increased to 25 people.

• Retail businesses to open at capacity of 25 per cent to a limit of 250 persons, with no restrictions on the number of household members permitted to shop together.

New public health restrictions will take effect at 12:01 a.m. Saturday, allowing the following activities and gathering sizes:

• Outdoor gathering sizes on private property of 10 people, and to allow outdoor visitors to briefly access homes for essential activities (such as to use a washroom).

• Public outdoor gathering sizes increased to 25 people.

• Retail businesses to open at capacity of 25 per cent to a limit of 250 persons, with no restrictions on the number of household members permitted to shop together.

• Personal service businesses (hair and nail salons, estheticians, barbers, etc.) to reopen at 50 per cent capacity, on an appointment basis only.

• Restaurants and bars to reopen at 25 per cent capacity for indoors and 50 per cent for outdoor dining. For indoor dining, patrons seated together must be from the same household unless all patrons at the table are fully immunized. For outdoor dining, tables are limited to a maximum of eight patrons and can be from different households regardless of immunization status.

• Indoor faith-based services and organized community cultural gatherings to resume at 25 per cent capacity with a limit of 25 persons with masks worn at all times.

• Outdoor faith-based and organized community gatherings (powwows, sun dance ceremonies) to resume for up to 50 persons, provided distance can be maintained between households. Drive-in services continue to be permitted.

• Outdoor weddings and funerals may take place with up to 25 participants, in addition to photographer and officiants; indoor weddings and funerals remain limited to 10 persons.

• Indoor dance, music, theatre and other organized sports and recreation activities may reopen at 25 per cent capacity to a limit of five persons, with no tournaments allowed.

• Outdoor dance, music and theatre classes and other organized recreation activities may reopen for groups up to 25 people, with no tournaments allowed.

• Swimming and wading pools, both indoor and outdoor, may reopen at 25 per cent capacity.

• Gyms and fitness facilities may reopen for individual and group fitness classes at 25 per cent capacity with three metres distance maintained between patrons.

• Summer day camps may reopen to a maximum of 20 participants in groups.

The orders are scheduled to expire at 12:01 a.m. on Monday, Aug. 2.

Large-scale, outdoor professional sports or performing arts events may also allow fully immunized Manitobans to attend, subject to approval by Manitoba Public Health.

“Additional benefits” for fully vaccinated Manitobans will be announced in July, including increasing capacity at weddings, funerals, faith-based and other gatherings, based on continued vaccination rate increases and improvements in the province’s overall COVID-19 situation.

"My jaw just dropped when I heard about how they're proceeding," the ICU doctor said. "I think that's incredibly risky." He's urged Manitoba to delay reopening until 50 per cent of those eligible are vaccinated.

Roussin downplayed concerns that Manitoba's reopening will lead to more interactions and potentially more chances for COVID-19 to spread.

"That's offset by rising vaccination rates," Roussin said Wednesday. "A lot of these changes in the (public health) order are directed to outdoor activities to minimize that transmission," he said. That's why more restrictions are in place for higher-risk indoor activities such as dining in a restaurant, he said.

"It's still a plan that takes into consideration that this virus is still transmitting in Manitoba," Roussin said. "At the same time, Manitobans have achieved very high vaccination rates very quickly, exceeding our July 1 date."

Not all regions of the province have high vaccination rates, and that's adding to the risk of Manitoba's reopening plan, Roussin conceded.

"When you talk about things like herd immunity, this really relies on uniform uptake," he said. Just 53 per cent of those eligible in Southern Health region have received one dose of vaccine compared with 74.4 per cent in Winnipeg.

Dr. Brent Roussin, chief provincial public health officer, discusses the province's reopening plans at the Legislative Building Wednesday.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Dr. Brent Roussin, chief provincial public health officer, discusses the province's reopening plans at the Legislative Building Wednesday.

"Even if we have a high provincial (vaccination) rate, that still puts us at risk if we have huge pockets of Manitobans who are unvaccinated," said Roussin. Manitobans are mobile, rendering no region pandemic-proof.

"We really need all regions to get those vaccine numbers up," Roussin said. "We're working on that."

Of the 123 new cases reported Wednesday, 64 were in Winnipeg, 22 in the Northern health region, 16 in Southern Health, 12 in the Interlake-Eastern and nine in Prairie Mountain. Three reported deaths — including two men in their 60s and 70s from Winnipeg and a man in his 60s from the Southern Health region — were all linked to the Alpha variant.

"Even if we have a high provincial (vaccination) rate, that still puts us at risk if we have huge pockets of Manitobans who are unvaccinated." —Dr. Brent Roussin

"We still need to follow the fundamentals, including indoor mask use, physical distancing, staying home when we're ill. That's still required," Roussin said.

When asked what would happen if the COVID-19 case count rises and Manitoba is headed for a fourth wave, Pallister said that would delay further reopening. The premier urged Manitobans to get fully vaccinated and said he would have more details on community outreach next week.

"Manitobans have done a great job," NDP Leader Wab Kinew said Wednesday after the early reopening plan was announced. "We should also remember there continues to be a crisis in our health-care system." Manitoba still has ICU patients being treated in other hospitals and tens of thousands of postponed surgeries.

"If we're serious about a reopening in Manitoba, our reopening plan has to include a plan for strengthening our health-care system, for investing in nurses," Kinew said. "That's not going to happen overnight. It's going to take years to train the necessary number of nurses."

— With files from Danielle DaSilva

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