Northern Manitoba reopens, as COVID-19 restrictions ease for first time since November

Cheryl Zaharia is happy to finally get back at work. 

The hairstylist was allowed to reopen her salon in The Pas, Cheryl’z Hair Den, on Friday, as the province relaxed some COVID-19 restrictions for northern Manitoba. 

Southern Manitoba saw some restrictions lift last month — including allowing businesses like hairstylists to reopen — but an increase in COVID-19 cases in the northern region meant the restrictions stayed in place there until this week.

“When you sit at home for four months, day after day after day, it kind of plays on your mental well-being a little bit,” said Zaharia. “Then there’s also the no paycheque, which is an issue also. So it’s nice to be back.”

Zaharia’s salon was forced to close Nov. 12, when all of Manitoba was elevated to the red, or critical, level of the province’s pandemic response system. But she had been off work since Oct. 20, after contracting COVID-19 herself. 

She still doesn’t know how she got it. 

“I took every precaution there was to take,” she said. “I was very, very careful. I did not, like, see people outside of my job. It was crazy.” 

Cheryl Zaharia reopened her hair salon in The Pas on Friday. It closed in November when Manitoba, moved to code red on the province’s pandemic response system. (Submitted by Cheryl Zaharia)

Help from the province and the landlord of her retail space kept her business afloat.

“There’s another small business right across the street from me and they are closing the doors at the end of this month,” she said. “If it wasn’t for the couple of months of free rent and the [provincial] business grant, I’d be closed also.”

Salons, gyms and restaurants are among the businesses that can now reopen at 25 per cent capacity in the north, as they can in the rest of Manitoba. 

Places of worship can also once again hold religious services, as long as they follow capacity limits, and households in the north can now have two designated guests inside, and up to five visitors outside on private property.

Tough months for northern businesses

Alan McLauchlan, vice-president of The Pas and District Chamber of Commerce, said business owners are overjoyed. 

Businesses were confused about “why somebody could drive two hours to southern Manitoba to get their hair cut, but they couldn’t do it here locally,” he said.

Those restrictions made the last few months tough.

“Our restaurants have been closed for a long time, and the same thing with our hairdressers and our gyms,” McLauchlan said. “One business has actually shut the doors, [and] had a couple that were looking at it. And luckily these restrictions have been lifted now, so hopefully they’ll be able to make a go at it.”

But with reopening during a pandemic comes caution.

Manitoba reported 81 new cases of COVID-19 on Friday, including 25 in the Northern Health Region. On Thursday, the province reported 90 new cases, nearly half of which were in the north.

Dr. Marcia Anderson, a physician with Manitoba’s First Nations Pandemic Response Coordination team, says as restrictions ease, people need to be diligent about limiting close contacts outside their households.

“That’s perhaps even more important than it has been, when we think about the fact that one of those new [coronavirus] variants has been detected in Manitoba,” Anderson said Friday, during the team’s weekly update via Facebook Live.

Community leaders who wish to have stricter public health orders in place can work with provincial health officials to do that, she added.

“This is important, especially if we start to see outbreaks in some communities,” she said. “That’s still a tool … that First Nations community leadership can use to offer more protection, in addition to the community-level measures that you take.”

‘Want to open up slowly’: Lynn Lake CAO

Lynn Lake’s chief administrative officer, Tom Matus, said while the easing of restrictions is good news, he thinks a gradual approach to reopening is best.

COVID-19 struck the town, about 815 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg, earlier this year, resulting in roughly 230 cases, he said.  

“We certainly don’t want a repeat of what happened here.”

Matus said there have been no active cases in the town of around 500 people in nearly a week.  

“We just want to open up slowly so that we can manage,” he said, and if there are new cases, “we don’t have to go into another full-blown COVID explosion.”