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Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba's chief public health officer, speaks during the province's latest COVID-19 update at the Manitoba legislature in Winnipeg Friday, October 30, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods

Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba's chief public health officer, speaks during the province's latest COVID-19 update at the Manitoba legislature in Winnipeg Friday, October 30, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods

WINNIPEG - Manitobans will continue to face tight COVID-19 restrictions for another two weeks because some people gathered over the holidays and case counts have started to rise again, says the province's top doctor.

The current public health orders, which include limits on social gatherings and store openings, were first ordered in mid-November, then extended in December with a possible end on Friday at midnight.

The government had, in recent days, indicated the restrictions were likely to continue with some measures loosened. But chief public health officer, Dr. Brent Roussin, said Friday that easing off was no longer an option.

"In the last number of days, we were getting more and more cases linked to holiday gatherings, seeing more and more contacts, and it just became quite clear that we weren't going to be in a position to substantially loosen these orders."

Health officials have traced 355 cases and almost 1,900 contacts to get-togethers over the holiday period, despite a ban on social gatherings inside homes, Roussin said. Some were small affairs between two households, he said, while others involved up to 20 people.

The extension means that, until Jan. 22, restaurants and bars will continue to be limited to takeout and delivery, non-essential stores will remain closed except for curbside pickup, and gyms and hair salons will remain shuttered.

Public gatherings are still limited to five people and most social gatherings inside homes — with some exceptions for people who live alone — are forbidden.

The Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce said its members are suffering under the restrictions.

"It seems as though business is having to carry the weight, the cost, of the pandemic," chamber president Loren Remillard said. "Within the business community, there's a growing anger."

Statistics Canada reported Friday that Manitoba lost some 6,600 jobs between November and December and was further behind its pre-pandemic employment level than any other province.

The Manitoba government has offered some financial relief, including $5,000 grants, and has promised to reveal further aid next week. Remillard said more is needed as restrictions drag on.

Manitoba had been leading the country in the per-capita infection rate for much of the fall. A few weeks after the restrictions were first brought in, the daily count of new cases started dropping sharply. The holiday period reversed the trend.

Still, case numbers are now low enough for the province to restart some elective surgeries that were put off in recent months to free up staff for the pandemic battle.

Health officials said they are planning to have 60 procedures done next week, but added that is a small amount of the backlog. Some 5,900 procedures have been delayed since October in the Winnipeg region alone.

The province also gave its official approval Friday for National Hockey League games to be held in Winnipeg. All other provinces with NHL teams had already approved a plan to hold games, with strict testing requirements and without fans in the stands.

"We've all reviewed those protocols and ... this is quite low-risk to Manitobans," Roussin said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 8, 2021