'Health officials, Pallister lied to us for weeks'

·4 min read

Business owner Jeremy Regan woke up angry and dejected Monday — yet another day when his barbershop had been forced to shutter again by the Manitoba government without any evidence about why it needed to happen, more than 14 months into the COVID-19 pandemic.

This time, Regan is frustrated for his storefront not even because it had to close. “But I’m just absolutely confused and irritated that public-health officials and Premier Brian Pallister lied to us for weeks leading up to this,” the Hunter & Gunn owner told the Free Press.

“We would’ve all been OK with these type of circuit-breaker closures, but it’s completely ruthless that they get a free pass on doing this, when all they did was tell us that the virus wasn’t coming from businesses and that we were doing a good job... When Pallister said the same things about us today, while telling us we still had to close, I just sighed so loudly. I literally wanted to yell.”

Regan is not the only such business owner expressing this kind of discontent.

In fact, stakeholders like the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce insist the provincial government has “completely flip-flopped” on its messaging leading up to new restrictions that came into effect Sunday, just before further measures were announced for schools and educators.

“We simply don’t have the rationale, data or any such evidence provided to us right now for why this happened,” said Chuck Davidson, president and chief executive officer for the Manitoba Chambers of Commerce.

“It seems businesses are bearing that brunt certainly, not because they’re the cause of the soaring cases, but because they’re lumped into helping turn down the dial on transmission overall at other places — mostly gatherings which the province isn’t enforcing to its full capacity,” said Loren Remillard of the Winnipeg Chamber.

On Monday, Premier Pallister announced new grants, after a weekend of outrage from the business community. Pallister failed to provide such supports earlier at a press conference announcing the restrictions, which he also did not attend.

The Manitoba Bridge Grant, which will dole out $5,000 a pop, is expected to be automatically provided to small- and medium-sized business owners who had qualified for its previous three iterations by the end of this week.

“We’re grateful for this grant because, yes, we’d been asking for this for weeks,” said Davidson. “Is it going to be enough? I don’t think $20,000 will ever be enough when you’ve been basically closed for well over a year.”

Pressed Monday, Pallister would not answer why the Tory government changed its tune about imposing new restrictions that required these grants in the first place. And Pallister also refused to say how this “tough decision” was made without any modelling or contact tracing data showing they were needed.

“I’m not going to apologize. We had to act. We chose to act,” Pallister told reporters at a news conference, about his “unapologetic” demeanour for imposing restrictions that he admitted were “done out of a sense of urgency without a lot of advance notice.”

The premier acknowledged restaurants, in particular, were “caught off guard” by the Mother’s Day measure. “So, this is a thank-you to them,” he said of a new top-up for eateries on top of the bridge grant for their plight.

“We continue to offer the most generous programs and supports in the country,” said Pallister inaccurately, when asked about assistance for workers, who will lose hours or be stuck without pay altogether due to the new provincial measures. He touted a new provincial pandemic sick leave program that provides workers $600 for up to five full days, but only if it’s related to COVID-19 and if they’re taking time off completely — not if they lose hours because of the new measures.

Last week, chief provincial public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin announced more than a dozen new measures, as coronavirus infections reached a level not seen since the peak of the second wave in November. The new orders will last at least until May 30.

“I think it’s a valid question to ask why businesses are being closed when all we’ve heard is cases are coming from elsewhere,” said Jonathan Alward, Prairies director for the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, on Monday. “That said, I know for a lot of people this grant extension will definitely be very helpful as they deal with that.”

The CFIB, Retail Council of Canada (Prairies), and the Winnipeg and Manitoba Chambers of Commerce all expect future closures and layoffs as a result of the new restrictions.

Temur Durrani, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Free Press