WINNIPEG — Manitoba's Opposition New Democrats are coming under scrutiny for holding an outdoor news conference that attracted a large crowd during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The provincial Justice Department said in a brief statement Tuesday that investigations are underway into what happened on Sunday outside Manitoba Hydro headquarters in downtown Winnipeg.
The NDP called the news conference to announce it planned to delay the passage of a bill that would raise hydro rates and change the Public Utilities Board. The party had given advance notice to the union that represents striking Hydro workers and photos from the event show several dozen people gathered behind and around NDP Leader Wab Kinew.
COVID-19 public health orders limit outdoor public gatherings to a maximum of 10 people.
Kinew said it was not a violation of the health order because it was a news conference and people took precautions such as wearing masks.
"We just held a press conference on Sunday, and when I showed up I was a little surprised to see how many people were there," Kinew said Tuesday.
"I think everyone was wearing masks and distancing from each other in various groups and then I think contact-tracing information was collected."
The public health orders do not specify any exemption for news conferences, worker rallies or gatherings with masks. The small number of exemptions include drive-in events where people must remain in their vehicles. Kinew said that might be his preferred option in the future.
"If you see us announcing a bill delay (in the future), you might expect a honk-a-thon, or something like that instead. I definitely want to keep on the right side of all the public health regulations."
Premier Brian Pallister, who was criticized by the NDP and others for taking off his mask inside Pearson Toronto Airport last summer, said all political parties should follow the rules.
"Rules should apply to everybody exactly the same," he said.
People who violate public health order gathering limits can be fined $1,296 each, although many people receive warnings instead. Enforcement officers issued 44 warnings and 22 tickets last week for a variety of offences — from not wearing a mask in an indoor public place to failing to quarantine after travel — according to a government news release.
Manitoba's COVID-19 numbers continued to tick slightly upward Tuesday after a sharp drop over the winter.
Health officials reported 111 new cases and no new deaths. One case from an unspecified date was removed due to data correction, for a net increase of 110. Health officials also reported 14 confirmed cases of variants of concern, all in the Winnipeg health region.
At the same time, the province's vaccination program was expanded. The minimum age for First Nations people dropped to 55 from 57. For others, the minimum dropped to 75 from 77.
The Progressive Conservative government also announced more aid for the hospitality sector. Hotels and tourism operators will split up to $8 million to help cover costs such as mortgage interest and property taxes, Pallister said. Details will be worked out by industry associations, he added.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 16, 2021
Steve Lambert, The Canadian Press