Consider reopening parts of northern Manitoba where COVID-19 situation stable, residents say

As the southern half of Manitoba is seeing some reopening after more than two months of strict pandemic lockdown measures, parts of the north with relatively few COVID-19 cases want the province to treat the huge area on a district-by-district basis.

“Districts like ours — like The Pas and Snow Lake and Flin Flon — really should be taken in consideration, instead of some of the communities that are suffering from current large outbreaks right now further north, which are about 500 to 800 kilometres away from here,” said Jill Wilkinson, president of The Pas & District Chamber of Commerce.

As of Saturday, some of the province’s strict pandemic restrictions were eased for all of Manitoba — with the exception of the Northern Health Region and the town of Churchill — following recent drops in case numbers.

The Northern Health Region was excluded because of recent spikes in case numbers in the vast area.

However, the district that includes The Pas, about 520 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg, seems to have managed to flatten its curve.

The Pas/OCN/Kelsey health district had 67 active cases as of Saturday, according to provincial data — a case count as low as it was last fall, while the region was under the orange, or restricted, level of the province’s pandemic response system.

Northern Manitoba covers an area almost the size of France, Wilkinson said during an interview Friday with CBC Manitoba’s Radio Noon, and has dozens of communities with nearly 75,000 people. It shouldn’t be treated as one uniform place, she says, and the risk levels of different parts of the north should be separately assessed.

One reason is the business community, the chamber says.

“Our businesses are very, disappointed that the restrictions were … kept in the north,” said Alan McLauchlan, the vice-president of The Pas & District Chamber of Commerce.

WATCH | Consider allowing northern districts to slowly reopen, chamber VP says:

The Pas & District Chamber of Commerce says it’s time to assess the risk of different parts of the north separately from the rest of the region. 2:52

He says people come from a 200-kilometre radius to shop in The Pas, but none of those areas are seeing COVID-19 spikes.

The chamber of commerce has been in touch with the province and has raised its concerns.

“We’re hopeful,” McLauchlan said. “Discussions are ongoing … and I think it’s just a matter of us going forward and letting the province know that there’s a different sort of life up here in the north.”

The province says it will reassess the public health orders in three weeks’ time.

A map showing Manitoba’s health regions. The vast Northern Health Region, along with the northern town of Churchill (technically part of the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority) was excluded from a recent relaxation of some pandemic restrictions. (Manitoba Regional Health Authority)