Manitoba eyes looser COVID-19 restrictions, says rules have saved 1,700 lives

WINNIPEG — The Manitoba government is seeking public input on whether to ease COVID-19 restrictions it says have saved about 1,700 lives.

The government opened an online survey Friday that asks people how they feel about the possibility of opening non-essential stores, gyms and other businesses, as well as easing a five-person limit on public gatherings.

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Premier Brian Pallister said any relaxing of the rules will be slow and cautious.

"Our goal is most certainly to create a sustainable path forward where our businesses can safely reopen and stay open," Pallister said Friday.

"What we don't want to do is have a yo-yo effect, where we allow openings and then, because of rising case numbers, have to invoke restrictions."

Manitoba clamped down in November when daily case counts were above 400 and intensive care units were nearing capacity. It ordered non-essential businesses to close except for delivery and curbside pickup. Public gatherings were limited to five people, religious services could only be drive-in events and most social visits inside private homes were banned.

Within a few weeks, the province's COVID-19 numbers improved. The daily new number of cases has been cut by more than half, the percentage of people testing positive is down sharply, and the drain on hospitals has eased somewhat.

Health officials reported 191 new cases Friday and five additional deaths for a total of 760.

The province's chief public health officer said the public health orders saved roughly 1,700 lives since November, based on modelling at the time.

"The restrictions are quite tough but it's obvious they have made a difference and continue to make a difference," Dr. Brent Roussin said.

The Retail Council of Canada said store owners have paid a high price during the pandemic and should be allowed to reopen with capacity limits on the number of shoppers.

"Across North America, the research we've continued to see is that retail — if health protections are in place and adhered to — remains a very safe environment ," said John Graham, the council's government relations director in the Prairie region.

Roussin appeared to agree, although he said no decisions have been made.

"I do think that in retail settings, where we have capacity restrictions, then there is the ability to reduce that risk (of virus transmission), and so that is something that we're looking at."

A final decision is expected late next week. The current set of public health orders is to expire next Friday at midnight.

The Alberta government announced Thursday that it will ease some of its restrictions starting Monday. Personal services such as hair salons and tattoo parlours will be allowed to take clients by appointment.

Outdoor social gatherings, which have been banned, will be allowed in groups of up to 10 people. And the limit on the number of people who can attend funerals is increasing to 20.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 15, 2021

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