Holiday gatherings will be outlawed in Manitoba this year as sweeping COVID-19 restrictions will be extended into the new year, though officials have added a number of exemptions to the provincial health order.
The restrictions will continue into January, Chief Provincial Public Health Officer Dr. Brent Roussin and Premier Brian Pallister announced Tuesday.
Pallister said the orders have worked but restrictions are still needed.
“They’re working. They’re beginning to make a difference. You’re beginning to make a difference, and that is critical as we move forward,” Pallister said.
“This is not a victory lap. These numbers are not sustainable … but Manitobans need to know that what they’ve done has helped.”
He made the comments as Manitoba announced 13 more deaths, 245 new cases and a provincial test positivity rate of 13.3 per cent.
A ban on drive-in church services, which some churches have flouted recently in defiance of health orders, will be lifted. Worshipers aren’t allowed to leave their vehicles, and vehicles should only carry members of the same household, Roussin said.
Expect those relaxed rules to revert to the old restrictions if people are caught taking advantage of the changes, Roussin said.
Thrift stores will be allowed to stay open and sell non-essential items. Low-income Manitobans were disproportionately affected by the closure of thrift stores, Roussin said. Stores that have been able to stay open have only been allowed to sell essentials since Nov. 21.
Food banks will have clearer guidelines on how to operate amid the extended restrictions. They were never excluded during past orders, but there was confusion around whether they could operate, Roussin said.
Meanwhile, acupuncture and osteopathy services will be permitted. Both were previously barred from offering services, though regulated health professions such as physiotherapy and dentistry were allowed to continue.
School supplies will be listed as essential items, and more guidance is coming on outdoor activities.
Holiday decorations for sale
The sale of holiday decorations — Christmas ornaments, wrapping paper, garlands and religious items such as menorahs — will be allowed.
Roussin said any reduction in restrictions in the future will be tied to how closely Manitobans adhere to these orders.
“We know that it’s going to be challenging going into the holiday season,” Roussin said.
“With high levels of compliance we’ll start seeing these numbers improve and we can once again get back to some of the things we enjoy and love, such as visiting our loved ones in personal care homes.”
The province is also expanding its bridge grant program to home-based businesses, including event planners, photographers, tradespeople and more, said Pallister. They will now have access to up to $5,000 in support.
Pallister said about 6,300 businesses have accessed about $31 million through the bridge grant program so far.
New orders expire Jan. 8
The announcement comes just shy of a month since all of Manitoba was placed under code red, or critical, in the provincial pandemic response system. Even tighter restrictions were brought in starting Nov. 21.
That led to a near-total lockdown that ushered in widespread closures to the retail sector, places of worship and a range of other services deemed non-essential.
But the orders have also failed to stave off some of the worst impacts of COVID-19 yet in Manitoba, with nearly 300 COVID-19 deaths since the tighter restrictions came into effect. Most of the people who died were over 60.
Despite the trends, Roussin said the “circuit breaker” health orders introduced in November have helped.
“The red or critical restrictions have helped us avoid that worst-case scenario,” he said. “That’s why we’re extending those orders.”
The old order will expire Friday and be replaced with the new orders, which take effect at 12:01 a.m. Saturday. They will expire Jan. 8.