If targets are met, Manitoba could see a first round of health restriction reductions by Canada Day.
On Thursday morning, Premier Brian Pallister and chief provincial public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin unveiled the "4-2-3-One Great Summer" reopening path for the province.
"Summer’s coming and the vaccines are here," Pallister said. "It’s time for Manitobans to get their freedoms back and enjoy a summer that we all want and we all deserve."
The plan sets three dates over the summer when the province hopes to reach certain COVID-19 vaccination thresholds.
If more than 70 per cent of all eligible Manitobans have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine and 25 per cent have received their second dose by Canada Day, certain businesses, services and facilities can open at 25 per cent capacity.
Then, if 75 per cent of Manitobans have received their first shot and more than 50 per cent have received their second shot by the August long weekend, certain businesses, services and facilities can open at 50 per cent capacity.
Finally, if Manitoba reaches the 80 per cent threshold for first doses and passes the 75 per cent threshold for second doses by Labour Day, businesses, services and facilities can open with limited restrictions.
Manitoba is unlike other provinces in that vaccination rates are the only indicator being used to determine when to move to further stages, though Roussin said public health would continue to monitor other indicators.
British Columbia accounts for COVID-19 case counts, hospitalizations and mortality rate on top of the vaccination rates to determine when to progress. Alberta considers total hospitalizations and vaccination rates. Ontario has set vaccination targets, but "health system indicators" are used to determine if it’s safe enough to progress.
Saskatchewan’s plan appears to only take vaccination rates into account like Manitoba’s.
"Public health supports this phased-in approach to reopening," Roussin said. "It strikes a good balance between now and where we want to and need to be. This plan also gives some flexibility, so we can monitor the situation and make the best decisions based on data at that time."
According to Pallister, some restrictions could be lifted earlier if milestones are hit ahead of schedule. The plan does not mention how the timeline will be adjusted if targets are not hit in time or how the plan will be affected if a fourth wave of the pandemic hits the province.
"If we do worse, we’re not going to get our freedoms back as fast," Pallister said.
Asked repeatedly what would happen if Manitoba reached its vaccination targets but still had a high number of cases or hospitalizations, Roussin said the specifics would be dealt with by public health when they arrive.
"Today I got my second dose of Pfizer, but I’m reading with concern, as we all are, that the first dose of Pfizer may not work as well at protecting against the Delta variant," Pallister said. "Yet it does work to reduce the severity of the Delta variant, therefore there could be number of cases but not the same degree of need for hospitalization or ICU as a consequence of more vaccines.
Neither Roussin nor Pallister said exactly what businesses, services and facilities would be allowed to reopen. However, the doctor emphasized that the reopening plan would not lead to a post-COVID Manitoba, merely a post-pandemic one.
"There are many other plans, seven that I’ve read in detail," Pallister said. "Four of those have already departed from the reopening strategies they’ve announced. Everybody’s in a battle against an unprecedented, adversarial opponent. We have the ability today to lay out a plan, with targets that are very specific and precise and we have the ability, as we have always done, to lay out public health orders to reinforce that reopening."
Earlier this week, the premier announced a new vaccination card program in which those who have reached the two-week mark after receiving their second dose of vaccine can apply for a card that would convey special privileges, such as not having to self-isolate upon returning to Manitoba after travelling domestically.
On Thursday, Pallister added another element to the scheme: those travelling to Manitoba from other provinces and territories who can prove they’ve received two doses of vaccine will not have to self-isolate anymore when entering the province.
Speaking to the Sun by phone on Thursday, Manitoba NDP Leader Wab Kinew said the branding for the reopening plan reminds him of the "RestartMB" plan from last year.
"It seems like the government continues to spend a lot of their time and energy on slogans and catchphrases, but not on the really important stuff like investing in health care," Kinew said. "To me, that was a pretty big missing plank from this release today. It didn’t really talk about health care. It didn’t talk about what they’re doing to strengthen our health-care system, to strengthen our ICUs, including the one in Brandon, didn’t talk about how they’re going to get a fair deal with nurses, which I think is super important today as nurses vote to go on strike."
Kinew also criticized the plan for not taking pandemic indicators other than vaccinations rates into consideration and not providing details on what exactly will be reopening in each stage.
Manitoba Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont told the Sun he believed the provincial government had rushed out a plan to say that they have one in place.
"It doesn’t actually do anything for anyone," he said. "What we need is a plan based on things like case counts, the infection rate, the number of people in ICU and not just the number of people who are vaccinated."
Lamont also called out the lack of specifics for businesses.
"It’s absolutely critical to have business support because there are so many businesses who lose money if they’re open at 25 per cent or can only be open at 50 per cent," he said. "The premier is forcing businesses to operate this way. If you’re going to force businesses to operate this way, you have to compensate them one way or another, give them some kind of break."
While new Brandon Chamber of Commerce president Barry Cooper is glad a plan is in place, he has concerns about the lack of specifics.
"We desperately needed to have something written down that said what we need to do and what we can do to get there," Cooper said. "I think it’s also important that it’s based on vaccination rates, because that’s something individuals have control over ... we view (vaccinations) as the quickest way for businesses to reopen. That said the plan is, in my mind, short on details. I’d really like if it had given us details on which businesses will be able to reopen when we hit those target marks."
Like Lamont, Cooper had concerns over a lack of new supports for businesses.
"With this announcement and the very few changes to public health orders that were announced here, we still have a lot of closed businesses, and closed businesses have no income," he said. "All they have are expenses. If we’re going to have businesses closed for the greater good of all Manitobans, it’s not unreasonable that we ask that they receive some support from the government. In the short term, I think that has to be a continuation of the bridge grant because we can get that money out really quickly."
Today through Sunday, People’s Party of Canada leader Maxime Bernier is scheduled to visit several Manitoba communities for anti-lockdown protests.
Asked about what the province would be doing in response to those events held in violation of public health orders, Pallister said he can’t influence law enforcement but said the PPC leader would have his pockets lightened by fines if he carries out his plan.
Shortly after the media conference ended, Bernier tweeted that he’d received an email from the manager of Manitoba Health’s health protection unit telling him he’d have to self-isolate in a hotel or other residence for two weeks upon entry to Manitoba.
Bernier indicated he would not follow that directive.
» Twitter: @ColinSlark