Manitoba is clamping down on private gatherings and businesses selling non-essential items in an effort to slow the alarming rise in coronavirus infections in the province.
New COVID-19 public health orders will prohibit people from having anyone inside their home who doesn’t live there, with few exceptions, and businesses from selling non-essential items in stores.
Previous orders, which came into effect last week, allowed gatherings at private residences of up to five people beyond those who normally live there, although Chief Provincial Public Health Officer Dr. Brent Roussin and others pleaded with Manitobans to stay home and only go out for essential items.
“Despite that, we saw people gathering at rallies, we saw crowded parking lots at big-box stores, we saw people continue to go out for non-essential items,” Roussin said at a news conference Thursday.
“So we’re left with no choice but to announce further measures to protect Manitobans, to limit the spread of this virus.”
Exceptions to the no-visitors rule include parents who do not live with their child, and people providing child care or other services deemed essential, such as education, construction or repairs, and deliveries.
People who live alone will also be allowed to have one designated person in their home as a visitor, and they can also visit that person.
Businesses that sell essential items such as food, medication, office supplies and major appliances will be required to remove any non-essential goods from the shelves or rope off those areas.
The new orders also further restrict capacity at large retailers to either 25 per cent of normal capacity or a maximum of 250 people, whichever is lower. Previous public health orders simply limited capacity at 25 per cent, without a hard cap on numbers.
The orders come into effect on Friday, except for the rule requiring businesses to prevent access to non-essential items, which comes into effect on Saturday. They will remain in effect until at least Dec. 11.
Premier Brian Pallister warned people against using the time before then to stock up on non-essential items.
“Don’t rush out to the stores … to take advantage of the opportunity to hurt yourself and others,” he said at the news conference.
Items deemed essential under the new orders include food, personal care and health products, baby and child-care items, outdoor winter clothing and pet supplies. Liquor and cannabis sales will also be permitted.
Non-essential items include books, toys, jewelry, flowers, perfume, consumer electronics and sporting equipment.
A list of essential and non-essential items is available on the provincial government’s website.
Violated ‘spirit’ of old orders
Under the earlier critical-level orders, only stores that sold essential items were allowed to remain open, but many of those businesses also sold non-essential items.
Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman called on the province to close that loophole and ban the sale of non-essential items.
The new restrictions on gatherings only apply to private residences. Existing orders limiting public gatherings to five people remain in effect.
Businesses must provide proof that the capacity limits have not been exceeded if an enforcement official requests it, the province said.
Manitoba’s restrictions are the strongest in the country, but some people and businesses violated the “spirit” of the original orders, which made these stricter measures necessary, Pallister said.
“We all understand that the next few weeks are not going to be easy, but there is a reward waiting for us if we do the right things now,” Pallister said.
“The best thing we can do for our local businesses … to help them get back into business, is to beat COVID down.”
Businesses that violate the public health orders could be hit with a $5,000 fine.
When asked about businesses that might decide potential profits outweigh the risk of the fine, Pallister said those businesses could be shut down entirely.
“So don’t think you can profit in the short term at the expense of putting lives at risk,” he said.
These new orders come as the per capita daily COVID-19 case numbers in Manitoba remain the highest in Canada, despite the government moving the entire province to red, or critical — the highest level on the pandemic response system.
There were 475 new cases and eight more deaths announced on Thursday.
Conflict for cashiers
A representative of the Retail Council of Canada said although retailers understand what needs to be done, they are disappointed that Manitoba has reached the point of needing further restrictions on the few remaining stores that are allowed open.
“People are going to be working overtime to comply to these orders, and we hope that there is just some patience in getting there,” said John Graham, director of government relations for the council’s Prairie region.
Despite the efforts of stores to remove items or cordon off sections, Graham says customers in other jurisdictions with similar restrictions still try to buy items that they consider to be essential, but the orders do not.
That can lead to conflict for cashiers, who are placed in the position of deciding whether a customer can purchase an item, Graham said.
The further restrictions on capacity will also likely lead to longer lines at many stores, Graham said.
Doctors Manitoba, meanwhile, says it supports the restrictions.
“We know these restrictions are difficult. We know you want to be there for your family and friends. But the best way to support the ones you love is to stay home and stop the spread,” a statement from the professional association said.