Any loosening of COVID-19 rules in Manitoba could be subtle, health official says

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WINNIPEG — Manitobans are unlikely to see a major loosening of COVID-19 restrictions when the current public health orders expire at the end of next week, a senior health official said Friday.

With daily case counts still in the hundreds and intensive care units swollen, the province will likely only make minor changes to rules that have banned most social gatherings and forced many businesses to close.

"I think we're in a tough spot here still," said Dr. Jazz Atwal, the province's deputy chief public health officer.

"If we do loosen something, I don't expect it would be major changes to the (health) orders, to be quite frank. It'll be subtle changes."

Health officials reported 329 new COVID-19 cases and four deaths as Manitoba continued to be the country's pandemic hot spot. Dozens of COVID-19 patients remained in intensive care units in other provinces in a bid to free up beds.

The fact daily case counts are down from last month when they rose above 600 one day, is a reason for some optimism, Atwal said, but the demand for intensive care beds could still rise slightly before levelling off.

The current public health orders forbid social gatherings between households, indoors and out, except for people who live alone. Museums, churches, gyms and theatres are closed while stores are limited to 10 per cent of normal capacity.

Outdoor pools and splash pads are being temporarily reopened this weekend due to a heat wave, but the province is telling people not to mingle with other households while at those facilities.

A few hours after Atwal's comments, the government issued an online survey that asks people to prioritize what rules should be relaxed first. The possibilities include allowing social gatherings, increasing retail capacity and restarting organized outdoor recreation programs.

The survey also asks what types of activities should be allowed for people who have received two doses of a vaccine, with options such as attending pro sports events, going to concerts, and visiting loved ones in personal care homes.

With the pandemic showing few signs of abating, organizers of the Winnipeg Folk Fest — one of the province's larger tourism events — cancelled plans for an event this year. They had already pushed back the event to mid-August from the normal July schedule.

"Unfortunately, we are sad to announce that with so much uncertainty around the future impact of the pandemic in Manitoba, we are unable to move forward with our events as we had wished," read a message on the organization's website Friday.

On the vaccination front, Manitoba expanded eligibility for second doses Friday. Anyone who received a first dose on or before April 25 can now book a second shot, up from April 20.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 4, 2021

Steve Lambert, The Canadian Press