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Here comes the insult to the injury of COVID-19 pandemic restrictions.

Right now in Manitoba, you cannot get a haircut, work out in a gym or get your nails done — but you can get a Botox treatment, breast augmentation surgery or tummy tuck.

(AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)</p>

Right now in Manitoba, you cannot get a haircut, work out in a gym or get your nails done — but you can get a Botox treatment, breast augmentation surgery or tummy tuck.

(AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)

Right now in Manitoba, you cannot get a haircut, work out in a gym or get your nails done — but you can get a Botox treatment, breast augmentation surgery or tummy tuck.

If that doesn't make any sense to you, you're not alone. This maddening, preposterous situation was prompted by a previously unknown blind spot in the provincial code red pandemic restrictions.

Apparently, non-essential medical procedures performed by physicians are governed by the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Manitoba, not the provincial government. As a result, while the latter continues to keep all "non-essential" businesses closed, the college has decided to allow certain non-essential cosmetic services to resume.

For thousands of small and medium businesses that have been shuttered, this loophole has poured a healthy dose of salt into a open wound.

That is not an argument against economic restrictions. Premier Brian Pallister's decision to lock down all non-essential business was, both in the spring and fall, completely justified.

But as the downward slope of Manitoba's second major COVID-19 outbreak begins to come into focus, decisions on what to reopen and what to possibly lockdown again in the future should be based more on epidemiological evidence, and less on best guesses.

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES</p>

For thousands of small and medium businesses that have been shuttered, this loophole has poured a healthy dose of salt into a open wound.

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

For thousands of small and medium businesses that have been shuttered, this loophole has poured a healthy dose of salt into a open wound.

Officials need to stop trying to draw arbitrary lines between "essential" and "non-essential," and instead focus on restricting those places and activities known pose the greatest risk of transmission.

Mounting scientific evidence on the nature of the novel coronavirus, and months of data collection from contact tracing and other sources, have presented a clearer idea of the scenarios that pose the greatest risks.

In the spring and fall lockdowns, Manitoba (like most jurisdictions) closed businesses and imposed restrictions on where and when people could go outside their homes. The business closures were clumsy and overly broad.

It was necessary, because officials didn't know exactly how the virus was transmitted. Thus, the rush to erect plastic shields, put social distancing decals on store floors, and hoard face masks and latex gloves.

JESSE BOILY / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES<p>

In the spring and fall lockdowns, Manitoba (like most jurisdictions) closed businesses and imposed restrictions on where and when people could go outside their homes.

JESSE BOILY / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

In the spring and fall lockdowns, Manitoba (like most jurisdictions) closed businesses and imposed restrictions on where and when people could go outside their homes.

It is now known it is harder to get COVID-19 from touching a hard surface (and then your face) but exceedingly easy to contract it by breathing air contaminated by respiratory droplets or aerosols. That determination alone puts a different spin on lockdown strategy.

As for where we are at greatest risk: Dr. Jazz Atwal, Manitoba acting deputy chief public health officer, said Wednesday contact-tracing data has shown household contacts have produced the most transmission.

That only makes sense. When you're at home, you're unlikely to wear a mask or social distance. You may not wash your hands as much. You may not even make much of an effort to suppress a cough or a sneeze. We do a bad job at self-isolation from other household members.

Let's look back on the order in which Manitoba closed or restricted things last year, and imagine a new approach based on what has been learned.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS<p>

In Manitoba, the Pallister government would not make masks mandatory until the end of September.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

In Manitoba, the Pallister government would not make masks mandatory until the end of September.

Knowing what we know now, any pandemic response would have to start with a mandatory requirement to wear non-medical face masks anytime, anywhere outside the home.

It's interesting to note most of the world only grudgingly embraced mandatory masks well after the first COVID-19 surge in the spring of 2020. In Manitoba, the Pallister government would not make masks mandatory until the end of September.

We'd also have to move in parallel to restrict travel outside the province, require strict mask use in any office or work setting and any social gatherings outside those living in an immediate household.

However, there is a sliver of a chance, if we did those things first, we might not need the full, broad range of economic restrictions.

Some businesses or buildings just wouldn't fit into this approach. Bars, restaurants, movie theatres and possibly places of worship — where wearing a mask is either counter-productive or not (sometimes) encouraged — may not be able to remain open. But the gross majority of other businesses would likely be okay.

As we creep ever closer to easing some restrictions, the same principles should apply. We need to keep mandatory masks and restrictions on social gatherings in place as long as possible, in the hope, by doing so, we could open more businesses and get the economy going again.

We have the opportunity to get it right this time.

But only if we pay close attention to the mistakes of the past.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Dan Lett

Dan Lett
Columnist

Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.

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