WINNIPEG — Many Manitoba students will have to wear masks when schools reopen next month as part of a new COVID-19 response that also allows for different restrictions in different communities.
Premier Brian Pallister said Wednesday the province will no longer strongly recommend students wear masks.
"What we heard from administrators, school leaders, parents (and) teachers as well, is that it would be even more straightforward to say it's required," Pallister said.
Masks will be mandatory for students and staff in Grades 4 to 12 and in classes where physical distancing of two metres cannot be maintained.
Dr. Brent Roussin, the province's chief public health officer, said younger kids will not have to wear face coverings.
"To mandate mask-wearing in a five- or six-year-old, and then try to enforce that, (would) be a real challenge," he said.
The province will make efforts to inform parents and students about how to properly wear a mask and keep it clean throughout the school day, Roussin added.
The Opposition New Democrats said the back-to-school plan is lacking because it continues to allow kids to be put into large classrooms. The NDP has called for a cap of 15 students per class, even if that would require finding new classrooms off school grounds.
"Communities across Manitoba, including in Winnipeg, have unused social halls, community centres, even churches that aren't being used during the week," NDP Leader Wab Kinew said.
The Progressive Conservative government also announced new colour codes, based on traffic lights, that allow harsher restrictions to be imposed on specific communities, business sectors, and even individual schools or restaurants.
Until now, the government has enacted rules provincewide on such things as store openings and the size of public gatherings.
Under the new system, Yellow — or "caution" — denotes the current situation, which includes caps on public gatherings of 50 people indoors and 100 outdoors.
A community or facility where the pandemic is more problematic could be designated Orange, which means "restricted," or Red, which signifies "critical."
Those designations could lead to lower public gathering limits, travel restrictions or closure of retail stores.
The same colour codes could be used for an industry, such as restaurants, if COVID-19 numbers were concentrated in one sector. Even individual facilities such as schools or personal care homes could be given the orange or red designation and subjected to stricter rules.
Roussin said the red designation is already being applied to a personal care home in Steinbach where a COVID-19 outbreak was declared earlier in the week. The care home has had to limit visitors and adopt other rules.
He said many factors will go into deciding whether to change code colours, such as the rate of positive tests, the level of community transmission and the capacity of the health-care system.
He said Brandon, site of more than one-third of active cases in Manitoba, is one area of concern.
"We're able to link (the Brandon cases) to clusters, to other cases, but watching it very closely," Roussin said.
"And, yes, if we felt that things were not contained and restrictions were required, then ... we'd go to the restricted level."
More than 30 of 88 active COVID-19 cases in Brandon are connected to the city's Maple Leaf Foods meat-processing plant, but Roussin said there is no evidence the novel coronavirus is being spread in the facility.
The plant has gone above and beyond public health requirements, he added, and many of the cases are connected to outside the plant.
Roussin reported an additional death Wednesday — that of a man in his 60s who had been in intensive care in the Southern Health Authority region. It is the 12th death related to COVID-19 in Manitoba since the pandemic started.
The province also reported 15 new cases for a total to date of 763.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 19, 2020
Steve Lambert, The Canadian Press