COVID faceoff: Manitoba hunkering down for second time to fight spread of virus

·4 min read

WINNIPEG — Manitoba matched its deadliest day of the COVID-19 pandemic Thursday as business owners feared how they will get through a second period of economic hibernation.

Health officials announced nine more deaths, matching the record set only the day before. There were 474 new cases detected. 

“Stay home,” said Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba's chief public health officer. “The message is do not socialize outside of your household.”

Under new public health restrictions that went into effect Thursday, non-essential stores and restaurants are limited to curbside pickup and delivery.

Churches can't hold in-person services. Bars, museums and theatres are closed and recreational activities are suspended, although schools remain open.

Roussin said hospitals are being pushed toward capacity. There were 227 people in hospital, 34 in intensive care.

The province has been struggling to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus since it started spiking in recent weeks after a summer lull. There have been more than 2,500 cases in the last week and more than 20 deaths in the past three days. 

Manitoba has the largest per-capita caseload of active infections in the country with 6,030 in its population of just under 1.4 million people.

In the spring, Kelly O'Leary decided to close the Sapphire Hair Lounge in Winnipeg a week before public health orders required it. 

O'Leary, the salon's co-owner, said they went beyond provincial requirements once they reopened. It was a different environment in the usually loud, full salon — appointments spaced out, clients in masks and no noisy blow dryers. 

Even as COVID-19 numbers rose she hoped salons would be spared new restrictions because of the expensive and extensive precautions the industry had taken.

The new public health order restrictions have forced the salon to close its doors again.  

"When the news of the shutdown came, it was definitely a punch in the stomach. It wasn't the same thing as March," O'Leary said. "A lot of us had to face the fact we were devastated. We didn't want to leave. We didn't want to shut down."

O'Leary said business owners are trying to figure out how to pay rent for their empty buildings, support employees and navigate confusing government programs. 

Kate Fenske, CEO of the Downtown Winnipeg Business Improvement Zone, said many small businesses rely on the months leading up to the holiday season to bring in revenue that keeps them afloat into the next year. 

"This year it's likely not going to be the case," she said.

Many business owners have been going deeper into debt for months, Fenske said, and they are still waiting on the federal rent relief program.

"They are scared because we just don't know how long it's going to go." 

Feast Cafe Bistro owner Christa Guenther said running her well-known Indigenous restaurant during the pandemic has been all about flexibility, patience and prayer. During the first lockdown she had to let go of all of her employees and donated all her excess food and supplies. 

Then, she said, it was like rebuilding a whole new business when Feast reopened in the summer. The latest shutdown is like starting all over again, she said.

She questioned whether all restaurants needed to close, or if those breaking previous rules should have been targeted. She said the vast majority of restaurants were taking serious precautions at a significant cost.

"If people are able to go to a grocery store then they can still go to a restaurant that's properly social-distanced," she said.

Guenther also said for restaurants to survive, third-party delivery systems need to stop charging the establishments. Instead, she said, they need to pass the cost on to customers.

The province has received a significant number of calls from businesses asking to be added to the critical services list, Roussin said. He said it's not possible to make that many exceptions.

“We are at a critical juncture right now in Manitoba," he said. "We need to make change. We all know how hard it is.”

Roussin announced earlier in the week that the enhanced restrictions would ban social gatherings. The public health order, however, was written to limit gatherings to five people to accommodate caregivers and others who may have to enter a household. 

"The message everyone needs to hear right now, regardless of the legal orders, is don’t socialize outside your household. Stay home," Roussin said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 12, 2020.

Kelly Geraldine Malone, The Canadian Press