Manitobans can reconnect with five family members and friends, starting Saturday at 12:01 a.m. after adhering to strict public health orders since the May long weekend.
Those were the only changes to the public health orders released on Wednesday at a press conference. Gatherings in public are restricted to five people, but those five people should not be from more than two separate households on private property (in addition to those who live at the residence), said Dr. Brent Roussin, the province’s chief public health officer.
"While we are now in a position to allow some small gatherings outdoors, we are not yet ready to restart our services and activities as our health-care system is still facing significant pressures," Premier Brian Pallister said in an earlier press conference Wednesday.
Nothing else has changed in the public health orders.
The announcement was meant to relieve some of the pressure Manitobans have been feeling since the May 24 orders restricted visitors from the immediate household.
"These are the only changes that will be occurring at this time," Roussin said.
Although the public health orders will allow for some small outdoor gatherings, Roussin reminded residents to minimize the amount of contacts outside their households.
"We are in a position to slowly ease, very minimally, some of our restrictions," Roussin said, noting that since more tighter public health rules came into effect on May 24, daily case counts have dropped. Wednesday saw 250 new cases.
Other restrictions remain in place, such as indoor public gatherings are not permitted and visitors are not permitted indoors on private property, except in certain circumstances. Employers are still expected to allow employees to work from home as much as possible. Retail businesses will continue to operate at 10 per cent capacity or 100 customers, whichever is fewer. Only one person per household will be allowed to enter a business, with some exceptions, such as a single parent with children or someone who requires a caregiver.
Restrictions remain for malls to manage capacity and access to eliminate gatherings and ensure compliance with shopping, and many businesses and organizations will remain closed for in-person service including gyms and fitness clubs, restaurants and bars (including patios), personal service businesses, museums, galleries and libraries.
Kindergarten to Grade 12 schools are currently learning remotely in Winnipeg, Brandon and in the Red River Valley and Garden Valley school divisions until the end of the school year. Some small group meetings are allowed. Schools in Morden and Dauphin will continue remote learning until June 21.
When asked why leave outdoor patios at restaurants closed if groups of five people are allowed to meet outdoors, Roussin explained there is a risk of re-opening too soon and people perceiving things are back to normal, impacting everyone’s actions.
"This isn’t really signalling an opening," Roussin said. "This is really more of a release valve.
"We still have significant demands on our health-care system, so we’re not in a position to open everything at once certainly, but we are in a position to slowly ease, very minimally, some of our restrictions," he said.
"Although the public health orders will allow for some small outdoor gatherings, people are reminded to minimize the amount of contacts you have outside of your household, to stick with those fundamentals to ensure distancing, to wear masks at appropriate times."
Currently, there are 151 patients in intensive care units including COVID-19 patients and people with other critical illnesses as of midnight Tuesday, said Lanette Siragusa, the province’s chief nursing officer. The province’s normal intensive care unit capacity pre-COVID is 72 patients.
While Manitoba isn’t out of the woods yet as the health care system continues to be strained due to COVID-19, steps continue to be taken to relieve some of the pressure, Siragusa said. For example, there are 15 nursing graduates already into a week of a two-week orientation in critical care.
"We will continue to recruit and orientate staff as the demand requires so that we can meet the needs of Manitobans," she said
There are just over 400 Manitobans who have been moved to personal care homes from hospitals in the province, as well as 43 patients with COVID-19 who are being treated virtually.
"All these efforts I’ve outlined have freed up substantial capacity within the hospital. ... However, while case counts are improving and more people are getting vaccinated every day, we are not quite out of the woods yet," Siragusa said.
"As our case numbers and test positivity rates start to drop and vaccination rates continue to rise, we can start to slowly ease some restrictions to allow people to gather outdoors, where there is a lower risk of transmission," said Roussin.
"But given the demands on the health-care system, we’re not in a position to open everything at once. We know this has been hard, but we need to continue to stay home, work from home as much as we can, follow the fundamentals and get vaccinated as soon as possible to ease the pressure on the health system." For a full listing of the current health orders, all of which will remain in effect, visit manitoba.ca/covid19/prs/index.html.
Manitoba Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont said that vaccine incentives are long overdue.
"The PCs have overwhelmingly been focused on punishment and enforcement, and for months we’ve been saying we need to reward people for doing the right thing."
Lamont said there are a number of major issues that need to be dealt with immediately. Vaccine uptake for first shots is stalling and Manitoba badly needs measures to kick first vaccine uptake into a higher gear.
"We are looking at a possible fourth wave with new variants spreading. We have to reopen slowly, and we need vaccinations to happen quickly and we can’t just rely on a lottery.
The government needs to provide supports to business, individuals, and for mental health to make sure we have the strongest recovery possible."
NDP health critic Uzoma Asagwara released a statement as well in response to the province’s recent lottery announcement and said Manitoba ICUs have been at a critical state for weeks.
"And while more nurses working in emergency rooms and surgery wards is a positive step forward, in ICUs the province seems to be content with sending patients out of province for care," she said. "We need to boost investments in critical care wards — hire and recruit more ICU nurses now and add back the beds this government cut."
In a recent feedback survey, Manitobans were asked what first steps should be taken to ease public health restrictions while balancing the needs of the health-care system. The survey indicated that 93 per cent of respondents said the ability to gather with friends and family outdoors on private property would improve their quality of life significantly.
Additionally, 85 per cent indicated the ability to gather with friends and family in outdoor public places would improve their quality of life. The survey ran from June 4-8, and more than 33,000 Manitobans participated. The survey report can be found at engagemb.ca/restartmb-pandemic-response-system.
The new orders will remain in effect until June 26 at 12:01 a.m.