The Manitoba government is considering a broad swath of relaxed COVID-19 rules that could increase outdoor gathering sizes, let families form a “bubble” with another household, and see almost all establishments allowed to reopen, including in the retail and indoor recreation sectors.
Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba’s chief public health officer, shared a long list of potential rule changes on Thursday that could come into effect as early as next week.
“This is the largest reopening we’ve done,” Roussin said, but “just the nature of this virus makes it a high-risk situation.”
Among the possible changes announced Thursday is giving households the option to pick one other home to be part of a bubble for visits. Both households would have to agree to be each other’s designates.
Manitobans could also opt to stick with the current rule — which allows each household to designate two people for indoor visits — but would have to choose either that approach or the “household bubble” option.
The proposed changes also include raising the limit on outdoor gathering sizes to 10, from the current five.
Roussin said the proposed changes could come into effect at the same time for the entire province, but not necessarily.
For now, officials are considering implementing some of the changes in two phases over a six-week period, starting as soon as March 5, with another round of changes on March 26.
The province is asking for public feedback on its suggestions.
WATCH | Proposed changes to pandemic rules on household visits:
What might reopen soon
With the exception of the Northern Health Region and some remote First Nations, Manitoba’s COVID-19 caseload, hospitalizations, test positivity and death rates have declined, after months of closures introduced last fall.
Officials began loosening some restrictions to allow for a “slow reopening” of some businesses on Jan. 23. The changes initially applied to all areas but the north. Restrictions were relaxed further on Feb. 12, with northern Manitoba included in those changes.
Roussin said it’s too soon to say for certain whether the approach to relaxing rules in recent weeks has been effective, though he suggested it’s a good sign that numbers haven’t generally spiked in that time.
He said even with proposed changes, Manitoba would remain at the red, or critical, level of the province’s pandemic response system. All of Manitoba has been at the highest level of that system since Nov. 12.
If some of the changes on the table are implemented, retail stores, restaurants and other businesses could see capacity limits grow to 50 per cent, up from 25 per cent. However, a rule would remain in effect limiting restaurant patrons to dining only with members of their household.
Indoor theatres, concert venues, bingo halls and casinos would have to remain closed.
Licensed establishments may be permitted to operate VLTs, so long as machines are two metres apart or have barriers between them.
Professional performing arts groups, such as theatre and dance companies and orchestras, may also be allowed to resume rehearsals, as long as they are not open to the public.
Gyms, day camps
Indoor recreation, gyms, rinks, courts, fields, ranges, studios, clubs and pools could all reopen at 25 per cent capacity, but the province may lift a current restriction that limits exercise indoor to one-on-one activities.
Group fitness classes may be allowed, but specific gyms would still have to adhere to 25 per cent capacity limits. That means individuals at the gym working out by themselves, as well as group class participants, would count toward a capacity total.
The measures may also allow people at gyms and pools to take off their masks during physical activity, though they would have to mask up in other areas of facilities.
Reopening day camps for kids and youth is also being considered. They would be able to operate at 25 per cent capacity, with maximum group sizes capped at 50.
Indoor recreational facilities for kids, such as go-kart tracks or arcades, could open at 25 per cent capacity, and outdoor amusement parks would be able operate at 50 per cent capacity under the proposal.
Caution still needed: Roussin
Roussin warned Manitoba’s COVID-19 outlook could worsen.
Despite dropping case numbers and an expanded vaccination effort, concern over the spread of more contagious coronavirus variants has led to tightening some rules.
Restrictions related to close contacts of positive cases ramped up earlier this week, and last month officials made it mandatory for most people returning to Manitoba to quarantine for 14 days. Some exemptions apply.
If the public and businesses aren’t careful, the province could end up where it was late last year, Roussin said.
“We’ve got to keep these numbers down,” said Roussin. “We have the numbers down, so we also have to try to get things open again, but we have to be very cautious.”
WATCH | Reopening must be cautious, Roussin says: