Saskatchewan announced new COVID-19 restrictions Tuesday, including expanding its mask mandate for indoor public spaces to include the entire province.
Originally, a mask mandate was in place for Regina, Saskatoon and Prince Albert. That was expanded last week to include communities surrounding those three urban centres and those with populations of at least 5,000 people, which included roughly 65 per cent of the province.
Tuesday's announcement will put all Saskatchewan residents under the same restriction when the new rules come into effect on Thursday.
"COVID-19 is now present in every part of the province, and you should wear a mask in every part of the province," said Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe during a news conference Tuesday afternoon.
Dr. Saqib Shahab, Saskatchewan's chief medical health officer, noted that wearing a mask in indoor public spaces isn't enough on its own to curb COVID-19 spread. Physical distancing, proper hand hygiene, staying home when ill and limiting social contacts are all crucial as well, he said.
Meanwhile, visitations to all long-term and personal care homes will be suspended except for "compassionate reasons."
"This is an extremely difficult measure for so many people, for our seniors and for their loved ones, especially as we enter this holiday time of year," said Moe.
But allowing COVID-19 into care homes would be much worse, he said.
"We know the outcome of that can be deadly and it can be devastating. We've seen that in many other places across this nation and around the world, and we do not want to see that here."
More than 20 long-term and personal care homes currently have, or previously had, COVID-19 cases, Moe said. The premier said he wants that number to go down, which is why visitations are being suspended.
Capacity limits on private indoor gathering sizes have also been reduced to a five-person max from 10.
Families of five or greater cannot have visitors inside their home, the province says. During the news conference, Moe went so far as to say that Saskatchewan residents should not allow anyone into their home who doesn't live there.
There are exceptions, however, such as allowing caregivers or tradespeople to enter, but physical distancing should be maintained and a mask should be worn at all times.
People living alone should limit their contact to one other household, Moe added.
The outdoor gathering size remains at 30, assuming physical distancing can be maintained. Any private gathering of more than five people has to take place at a public venue, the province said.
"Much of the recent spread of COVID-19 has occurred in private gatherings in our homes," said Moe.
"This doesn't necessarily mean that we've been doing anything wrong," he said, pointing to the previous household gathering limits.
But if even one person invited over has COVID-19, "all of a sudden now you will have four or five of those individuals that could have COVID."
Entertainment transportation, such as party buses and limousines, will also no longer be allowed.
Transmission at bars, restaurants and sports facilities has added up.
The Ministry of Health will be speaking with members of the hospitality and sports and recreation industries, as well as faith leaders, about further restrictions to those sectors.
The new measures will be reviewed on Dec. 17 — four weeks after they're implemented.
"A lot of these guidelines have to be reviewed, given our higher [community] transmission levels, and a lot of these sectors need to be slowed down," he said.
Slowdown, not a lockdown
Saskatchewan public health officials announced 240 new cases of COVID-19 Tuesday, pushing the total of active cases in the province to 2,055.
Seventy-one people are currently being treated in hospital for the illness, and 15 people are in critical care. The number of Saskatchewan residents who have died from COVID-19 is 31.
Recently, the provincial government has come under pressure from doctors and health-care workers to do more to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.
A letter to Moe was signed by 442 doctors demanding further action, such as a public awareness campaign to combat misinformation about COVID-19 and explain to the public why Saskatchewan's health-care system cannot sustain a drastic increase of COVID-19 cases.
Shahab said the next two to three weeks will be critical for the province. Ideally, new case numbers will decline over that time, he said, "but if these keep trending up, I think there will be further difficult choices ahead of us."
The measures announced Tuesday are an attempt to stop the spread of COVID-19 by Christmas, so "some degree of visitation" is allowed during the holidays, said Moe.
When asked why the government isn't introducing measures to shutter non-essential businesses — and could be seen as choosing jobs over minimizing spread of the virus — the premier said it isn't the time for a lockdown, and maintained the new measures will be effective.
"One: it reduces the spread temporarily. Two: we are not sacrificing one for the other. We've always said that's not the choice that needs to be made," he said.
"We feel that we are at a stage here where a slowdown will work. We may get to a lockdown in the days ahead."
Moe added that there are thousands of Saskatchewan residents and families still recovering from the economic burden of the first lockdown.
Opposition NDP MLA Vicki Mowat, the party's health critic, said the restrictions announced Tuesday are not enough.
"In the face of the alarming rise in cases and the pressures on our hospitals, the Sask. Party saying they will review further measures instead of taking action is nowhere near enough," Mowat said in a statement issued after Tuesday's news conference.
"The people of Saskatchewan are looking for a serious path forward. Banning hookah lounges and party buses will not have the impact that we need at this crucial moment.... We need concrete action to contain the second wave and prevent a long-term shutdown of our economy."
Dr. Brent Thoma, an emergency room doctor in Saskatoon, echoed Mowat's sentiments.
While he applauded the province for expanding the mask mandate to all Saskatchewan residents and reducing the private gathering limit, he said he doesn't understand why people can still gather indoors, without masks, at pubs, bars and restaurants.
"That's a contradiction," he said. "If we can only have a few people at home — and there's a good reason for that — I'm not sure why we would gather in much larger groups in other settings, especially without masks."
He said he couldn't think of any examples where restrictions, such as those introduced Tuesday, have halted the spread of COVID-19.
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