The province believes it’s “nearly impossible” to come up with one-size-fits-all public-health orders for all types of businesses.
But the idea of lumped categories for pandemic restrictions is causing frustration for many business owners across Manitoba — not just for their struggling storefronts, but also hundreds of customers and clients who depend on their services for medical or health reasons.
It’s a “debilitating” problem that the operators of Winnipeg-based therapy facility FLOAT.Calm are particularly aware of.
After watching their business seesaw with forced closures amid COVID-19, co-owners Brad Dauk and Leah Dawn are “disgusted” by discrepancies within current restrictions that are causing oversights for float centres such as theirs.
“We spent months being shut down and called a non-essential service despite being a mental health treatment,” said Dauk. “Then, to finally open and be told we can only have one person at a time is just absolute nonsense. It doesn’t make any practical sense, or has any scientific backing.”
Under the current orders, “personal services” is a grouped category that includes nail salons, spas, barbershops, tanning facilities, tattoo stores and “therapeutic treatments,” such as reflexology, Reiki and pedorthy or massage services.
Every business within the category has been asked to limit the number of customers at 25 per cent of their “usual capacity” for the premises or one person, “whichever is higher.”
Per those capacity limitations, FLOAT.Calm isn’t allowed to have more than one client at a time — even though they have five very large, sound-proof rooms with concrete walls in between and separate ventilation for each.
In fact, customers don’t even directly interact with a worker while they’re using the float machine within each room. And they wear masks in any common areas, with the operators setting up staggered appointments to make sure there is time for a complete disinfection between each client’s usage of the isolation tank.
None of that mattered, however, when provincial orders for new restrictions came into effect on Feb. 12, which allowed FLOAT.Calm to finally open.
A lengthy email exchange between public health officials and the owners show the province did not provide any leeway or understanding on this matter. Instead, they threatened enforcement action.
“Thanks for taking the time to explain your processes to me. Upon review of your re-opening strategy I can confirm that there is no leeway on the 25 (per cent) capacity of the premises,” reads one email addressed to Dauk and Dawn from Cristina Bueti, a public health inspector.
“Various enforcement agencies are attending personal service facilities in Winnipeg to ensure compliance with the public health orders. Failure to comply may result in enforcement action.”
In a statement to the Free Press Monday, a provincial spokesperson reiterated: “We must take a slow, measured approach and avoid reopening everything right away so our case numbers don’t increase in the weeks ahead. This includes limitations on things that cause risk – for example, close-contact settings. We continue to encourage people not to leave their homes for non-essential reasons. And, as has been mentioned a number of times in briefings, it is nearly impossible to account for every type of business, situation or activity when writing public health orders; however, the priority of the orders remains to protect Manitobans.”
But FLOAT.Calm — which would normally have at least 500 regular customers per month — isn’t the only such facility that’s facing this problem. Owners from three others in the city said much the same.
In Brandon, however, Kori Gordon who runs Natural Elements said she hasn’t been asked to limit capacity from any of the regional health inspectors. That’s why her four-room facility is allowing four customers at a time, despite the rules being different for FLOAT.Calm and others in Winnipeg.
“It’s safe, socially-distanced and completely OK, from the interpretation I’ve been offered with the orders,” she said. “And frankly, I’ve learned a long time ago to not question these kind of things when they happen with pandemic protocols — there are way too many glaring discrepancies.”
For Phyillis Ash-Harmon, it’s been hard not to access the float treatment at FLOAT.Calm for her post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
“To me it doesn’t matter what the politics of these things are,” she said Monday. “I just would like to get better, and it’s hard to understand a reason for these things when it’s a pandemic and you’re told you can’t access something which is supposed to help your health. That just boggles my mind.”
Mike Zueff, another regular client agreed. “I mean this is the kind of thing that’s almost designed to be safe for COVID-19,” he said. “The rooms are alone, they’re specially ventilated and it’s called an isolation tank, for god’s sake.”
“I know the government’s busy and I know they’ve got a lot on their hands,” said Lori Cohen, who also uses FLOAT.Calm for her mental health. “I’m sure they’re doing the best that they can, and they’ve got a lot of complaints already to deal with.
“But this is an actual health crisis and you’re limiting active health. For that reason, I say: You can do better.”
Temur Durrani, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Free Press