Manitoba might reopen concert halls, casinos and ease other pandemic restrictions

·3 min read

WINNIPEG — The Manitoba government may let concert halls and theatres reopen, ease an isolation rule for business travellers, and increase the cap on outdoor public gatherings.

The province's chief public health officer floated the potential changes Thursday, and said while Manitoba's daily COVID-19 case counts have been ticking upward recently, other indicators show there is room to ease restrictions.

"We have seen our hospitalization numbers and intensive care unit admission numbers move in that right direction," Dr. Brent Roussin said.

"In addition to that, spring and summer are approaching and we continue to ramp up our vaccine efforts."

As with previous reopening moves, the suggestions will be subject to public feedback via a government website. The timing of when any changes could occur — perhaps after the Easter and Passover holidays — is also to be determined, Roussin said.

The potential changes include allowing casinos, theatres and concert venues to reopen for the first time since October at 25 per cent capacity, up to a 250-person maximum.

The limit on outdoor public gatherings would increase to 25 people from 10. The same change would apply indoors for weddings and funerals. Indoor organized sports could resume.

Business travellers arriving from other parts of Canada would be exempt from the province's 14-day self-isolation requirement if they do not have symptoms.

The idea of concerts restarting was music to the ears of Jason Hooper, executive director of the West End Cultural Centre, a fixture on the Winnipeg music scene.

"It was pretty depressing," Hooper recalled Thursday about having to shut down last October and send all the staff home.

In recent months, workers were brought back for livestreaming concerts. But being allowed to bring back an in-person audience would be a big boost, he said, both for morale and for bar sales and other revenue sources.

Hooper said he would likely keep the audience level well below 25 per cent — to ensure physical distancing — and would need to charge higher ticket prices.

The Manitoba Liberal Party said the reopening should not happen because there are worrying signs about the pandemic, including a rising number of cases involving variants that are more contagious.

"This is not the time to be reopening. We need to be focused on vaccinating, vaccinating, vaccinating," Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont said.

The province reported 91 new COVID-19 cases and one death Thursday. However, two cases from unspecified dates have been removed due to data correction for a net increase of 89.

Health officials also confirmed 12 cases that involve variants of concern first detected overseas.

The government expanded its vaccination program for the second time in as many days Thursday. It dropped the minimum age for vaccinations among the general public by another two years — to 51 for First Nations people and 71 for others.

As more people get vaccinated, the province expects to eventually allow fans in the stands at sporting events such as National Hockey League games. Roussin said no decision had been made yet.

"I think there's good reason to be optimistic," Roussin said.

"It's going to be largely dependent on the vaccine rollout and vaccine uptake from Manitobans."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 18, 2021

Steve Lambert, The Canadian Press