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Further loosening COVID-19 restrictions in Manitoba is the right thing to do, even with the slight increase in cases during the past week. But eliminating self-isolation rules for those who travel here from Eastern Canada would be premature.
It's no surprise Manitoba has had an increase in COVID-19 cases as the economy reopened. The province’s chief public health officer, Dr. Brent Roussin, has reminded Manitobans repeatedly there would be an increase in cases as the government eased restrictions.
Manitoba’s 13-day streak with no cases earlier this month, while a welcome reprieve, was unexpected. It’s unrealistic to think that could continue as the province reopens the economy. There will be more cases. There will be more deaths. It’s unavoidable.
However, that doesn’t mean the government should take unnecessary risks, where potential costs outweigh expected benefits. Manitoba has no choice but to slowly reopen its economy. The alternative — deeper unemployment, soaring bankruptcies, greater poverty, poor health outcomes in other areas — that would arise from a continued lockdown is unthinkable.
But each stage of reopening has to be weighed against the potential damage it could cause. The cost of reopening the Canada-U.S. land border, for example, would far outweigh the benefits of increased tourism and cross-border shopping, given the alarming outbreaks in the U.S.
By contrast, the benefits of children returning to school in September, which will likely increase the spread of the disease, outweigh the costs of higher caseloads. It’s critical that kids get back to the classroom in the fall. Society will have to accept the risks associated with that.
Most of the measures in the province’s Phase 4 plan to reopen the economy, which were unveiled this week, are reasonable. Opening movie theatres with restrictions and casinos at half-capacity, while increasing indoor and outdoor public gathering limits, are low-risk moves (as long as people continue to adhere to social distancing).
But the case for eliminating the 14-day self-isolation period for travel between Eastern Canada and Manitoba is weak. The province said it’s considering lifting that restriction as part of its Phase 4 plan.
That would be a mistake.
Considering Roussin has said the importation of the virus is one of Manitoba’s biggest risks in containing the spread of the disease, allowing unfettered access to Manitoba from those provinces would seem foolhardy.
Quebec and Ontario (particularly Montreal and Toronto) still have much higher caseloads and community transmission than Manitoba. While case numbers in both provinces have come down from highs in April and May, they began to rise again this month. Considering Roussin has said the importation of the virus is one of Manitoba’s biggest risks in containing the spread of the disease, allowing unfettered access to Manitoba from those provinces would seem foolhardy.
Besides, the benefits of doing so are modest. Yes, it would be nice to visit family and friends in those provinces, or to take a summer vacation there, without having to self-isolate upon return. There would be also tourism benefits for Manitoba if those measures were relaxed. But the cost of that — a steady stream of people getting off the plane from Montreal and Toronto and immediately frequenting stores, restaurants, bars and other public places in Manitoba — would be far too high.
Manitoba eliminated the self-isolation rule for western provinces and northwestern Ontario as part of its last reopening phase. With cases rising faster in Saskatchewan and Alberta than in Manitoba, the province is already facing growing risks from interprovincial travel. It doesn’t need more by opening up with the rest of Canada, especially when the benefits are so meagre.
Despite the recent uptick in cases, Manitoba’s pandemic numbers are still among the best in Canada. Although the province’s five-day test positivity rate has grown to 1.12 per cent from under 0.2 per cent a week ago, it’s still low on a national scale. By comparison, the overall test positivity rate in the U.S. is 8.5 per cent. In Arizona, it’s 24 per cent and in Florida, 18.9 per cent. Even North Dakota’s is much higher than Manitoba’s at 5.8 per cent.
Manitoba’s test positivity rate will likely rise as the economy reopens. Roussin cited three per cent as a benchmark in which the province could reinstate measures to curb the spread of COVID-19. Manitoba doesn’t need to do anything to hasten that, especially when there is no good reason to.
Tom has been covering Manitoba politics since the early 1990s and joined the Winnipeg Free Press news team in 2019.
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