More Saskatchewan residents will have to wear masks in indoor public places, as mandatory mask rules expand to communities with populations over 5,000 as of Monday, the provincial government has announced.
The mandate announced by the province Friday includes 59 communities — plus Saskatoon, Regina and Prince Albert, where a mask requirement was already in place.
Communities that surround Saskatoon, Regina and Prince Albert are included in the mask mandate, even if their populations are less than 5,000.
That covers roughly 65 per cent of the province, according to Health Minister Paul Merriman, but falls short of the demand of roughly 300 doctors, who signed a letter earlier this week calling for a mask requirement for all Saskatchewan communities.
"Our case numbers are still quite a bit lower than our neighbouring provinces, but make no mistake — our case numbers, our hospitalization numbers, the number of patients in the ICU, all of these have been heading in the wrong direction," Merriman said during a news conference.
"We need to work now to make sure they don't climb even higher, to the levels we've seen next door."
Dr. Alex Wong, an infectious disease specialist in Regina, was expecting more from the province on Friday.
"I think the government's plan is a staggered approach, trying to make initial modest changes and hoping that that is going to make an impact on our case counts," Wong said during an interview with CBC Radio's Blue Sky.
Wong understands why the government might not want to put the entire province under a mask mandate, but said without that, some residents may look for loopholes in the rules and travel to communities that are excluded.
"At the end of the day, masking really is a no-risk, all-benefit type of intervention," he said, adding the government is choosing to leave it up to Saskatchewan residents to enforce wearing masks.
But Steve McLellan, CEO of the Saskatchewan Chamber of Commerce, says the government did a good job straddling the line between public health and keeping the economy going.
"We can't have an economy that shuts down," he said. "It's not going to help the health of the citizens."
McLellan urged each Saskatchewan resident and business to hold each other accountable to follow the mask mandate. But if a business is disregarding the rules, people should avoid it, he said.
"If they're blatantly allowing people to wander through without masks, and if staff are not wearing masks, don't reward that business with your business," he said.
Last call for alcohol at 10 p.m.
Also starting Monday, licensed liquor establishments will have to stop serving alcohol at 10 p.m., and consumption must end by 11 p.m. Hookah lounges will have to close.
Gyms and fitness centres can stay open under Re-Open Saskatchewan guidelines, but group aerobic classes are limited to 8 people and they must be able to maintain at least three metres of distance between them. If that distancing cannot be maintained, then they will also have to close.
It is recommended that Saskatchewan high schools with at least 600 students move to level three of the province Safe Schools plan on Monday. That level reduces the amount of in-class learning.
The new measures will be in place for 28 days, or four weeks, then will be reviewed by Chief Medical Health Officer Dr. Saqib Shahab, Merriman said.
When Saskatchewan averages about 120 COVID-19 cases per day is when restrictive public health measures need to be contemplated to limit the spread of the virus, and the province is currently at that point, Shahab said Friday.
Another 81 cases of COVID-19 were announced in the province Friday, snapping a streak of days with more than 100 new cases daily. The number of active cases dropped slightly Friday, to 1,427.
But four more people are being treated for COVID-19 in hospital, bringing the total number of hospitalizations to 53, including 15 people in intensive care.
Shahab noted that while many cases in the province are in young people, older people are still being impacted, and that's reflected in the hospitalizations.
To mitigate the rise in cases, Saskatchewan residents should also limit their number of contacts outside their home, Shahab said.
On top of the usual messaging of physical distancing and staying home when sick, Shahab recommends wearing a mask in indoor public places, avoiding unnecessary social gatherings and designating one person per household to do the shopping.
"If we all do that, the curve bends. You don't need to have big lockdowns. You don't have to have even slow downs in the economic sector," he said.
"But we can only avoid that if we all do these things. Not if some of us do it — if all of us do it."
Shahab hints at potential sports restrictions
Other provinces experiencing significant COVID-19 cases, such as Manitoba, have suspended all sports. That is currently being looked at in Saskatchewan, said Shahab.
But he called on parents and people participating to think about whether they can lessen the amount they, or their children, are playing.
"Are you operating as per the mini-league guidelines? If you play three sports, you should probably just play one," said Shahab.
While COVID-19 can be spread through contact sports, the risk is low unless someone plays when sick. The virus most often spreads before or after games, when people are socializing, he said.
"It's not just about playing the sport ... it's also thinking very objectively about what you do when you get there," Shahab said. "If you're waiting for your turn to play, do you keep that distance? Do you keep your mask on?
"We need to think very consciously about how we can participate as safely as possible, in the minimum number of sports for ourselves and our children, for the next little while."
Shahab hinted that some restrictions around sports could come next week, but that all depends on how the COVID-19 situation in Saskatchewan progresses.
SHA to reopen emergency operation centre
The Saskatchewan Health Authority announced Thursday that it will be reopening its emergency operation centre. During Friday's news conference, SHA CEO Scott Livingstone told reporters that it will be fully operational by early next week.
Reopening the emergency operation centre "is a result of the significant increases in [COVID-19] cases and hospitalizations that we've seen over the last week," said Livingstone, who joined the conference by phone.
"We expect that we are going to continue to see high case numbers and we determined that it was necessary to reactivate the [emergency operation centre] to strengthen our coordination across the organization, and send a signal that we're going to have to mobilize resources across our teams."
There are no planned "across-the-board" service slowdowns on the horizon, Livingstone said, but there will be targeted localized serviceslow downs.
This will be done where "absolutely needed" in order to redeploy staff to combat COVID-19 while maintaining essential services, he said.
Livingstone addressed the strain COVID-19 is now having on the province's hospitals, in Saskatoon in particular, where increased intensive care unit admissions have forced the hospital to expand its ICU capacity.
"To be able to respond to outbreaks, or shift or resources, to meeting testing or contact tracing demands, the more and more we're being forced to contemplate some of these difficult decisions," he said.
"None of our COVID surge plans guarantee our system will be able to cope with a large growth in cases and associated hospitalization. This is why our ability to meet demand is up to the public."
Dr. Susan Shaw, chief medical officer for the SHA and a critical care physician, urged all Saskatchewan residents to follow the mask mandate and other public health messaging, limit social contacts and stop abusing contact tracers.
"They say people are experiencing COVID fatigue and this is why people are becoming more relaxed about following guidelines, measures and restrictions," she said.
"I'm tired too. Our physicians and staff are also tired, and yet we come to make sure the system is there for you, when you need it."
Anyone who is against wearing a mask or following public health rules is welcome to trade places with the front-line health-care workers who are dealing with patients and families, Shaw said.
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