Manitoba eases crowd limit for COVID-19 pandemic, other changes to come

WINNIPEG — The Manitoba government is easing its 10-person cap on public gatherings as the province's COVID-19 numbers remain low.

Starting Friday, the province will allow groups of up to 25 people indoors and 50 people outdoors.

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"As our numbers are staying favourable — just as we committed to Manitobans — we're going to continue to ease our restrictions," Dr. Brent Roussin, chief public health officer, said Wednesday.

The province also plans to ease a ban on people visiting loved ones in personal care homes. By the end of next week, homes will be allowed to offer limited, outdoor visits with a maximum of two guests per resident.

Visitors will be screened on their arrival and will have to continue to practice physical distancing, said Lanette Siragusa, chief nursing officer with Shared Health Manitoba.

The decisions came as health officials announced there were no new COVID-19 cases in the province. Only one has been registered in the last eight days, and of the 290 cases to date 23 remain active. Seven people have died.

For the time being, other restrictions such as a ban on dine-in restaurants, organized team sports and personal services such as nail salons remain in effect. Roussin hinted things could change in the coming days.

The numbers, so far, are well below what the provincial government was expecting when it ran modelling earlier this year. But while the health impacts to date have been less severe than feared, Roussin warned Wednesday the province is anticipating a possible second wave.

The pandemic's financial blow to Manitoba's bottom line may also be less severe than first expected. A report from S&P Global Ratings released last week said the government was facing an extra $3.5 billion in debt this year, because of increased health-care spending and reduced tax revenues from a slumping economy.

Premier Brian Pallister, who last month predicted a $5-billion deficit, said it's far too early to say how the pandemic's economic impact will play out.

"Nobody's projecting that we're going to be in anything but a desperate situation here, and that is the same (for) every province," he said.

"I don't think we're out of the bush yet."

S&P did not alter its credit rating for Manitoba but downgraded its outlook to stable from positive. It said a drop in the province's credit rating could occur in the next two years if the pandemic's effects are protracted and economic recovery is delayed.

The Progressive Conservative government has tried to control costs by asking many public-sector workers to accept unpaid days off, reduced work weeks or temporary layoffs. The Opposition New Democrats said that plan is what could lead to a credit downgrade.

"That takes more money out of the economy and it means that the recovery will be slower than it ought to be," NDP Leader Wab Kinew said.

Pallister also announced Wednesday a funding increase for a community development program by 25 per cent to $10 million.

The program offers money to municipalities, non-profit groups and others for a range of projects, including recreation buildings and outdoor amenities such as nature trails. Pallister said the extra money will help the economy during the pandemic.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 20, 2020

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