Where's Manitoba's road map to recovery?

·4 min read

The province just west of Manitoba, with equivalent if not higher COVID-19 case counts per capita, has come up with a detailed reopening road map for businesses and residents.

Saskatchewan is using a three-pronged approach that hinges on vaccination levels for different age groups, which would allow that province to lift public-health restrictions using a targeted timeline this summer.

So, why isn’t Manitoba following suit?

In interviews with the Free Press, business leaders and stakeholders across the province said that’s something they’ve been asking for months. But the Manitoba government has yet to deliver, they said.

“So far into this pandemic, no one has had any idea or opportunity to prepare for what comes next,” said Chuck Davidson, president and chief executive officer of the Manitoba Chambers of Commerce, on Wednesday. “Especially for businesses, we’ve found it to be an uncomfortable position of just being constantly frustrated.

“What Saskatchewan is doing is exactly what needs to be done now, because it shows everyone when there might be light at the end of this... Or, if anything, it’s a carrot dangled in front of people who are hesitant to get vaccines or waiting on it to say, look, these businesses will open if you go get your shot and help your neighbour get one.”

In a statement on Wednesday, the province was quickly defensive about its coronavirus road map.

“Any reopening plan consists of more than just an one-page infographic (sic),” a Manitoba government spokeswoman said pointedly about Saskatchewan. “In August of 2020, Manitoba launched the #RestartMB Pandemic Response System — the first of its kind in Canada — an online public health toolkit to provide detailed, timely and localized information about the current risk of COVID-19 and the specific measures being taken to reduce its spread and protect Manitobans.

“This system provides a guideline as to what can be open, and... In January 2021, Manitoba began its cautious and careful reopening process — which was covered by your paper.”

The spokeswoman touted Manitoba’s “most generous” emergency support programs, which have yet to be extended or expanded, and said the Tories are in constant talks with the business community about “creating an environment for a sustained reopening of our economy.” She also lauded the “$2 million in traditional and digital advertising, daily media bulletins, almost daily press conferences with elected officials and/or public health leaders, telephone town halls, stakeholder and industry roundtable discussions and multiple public surveys on EngageMB.”

However, leaders from that very business community said it couldn’t be a better time to actually apply their suggestions to Manitoba’s pandemic protocols.

“The strength of the Saskatchewan approach is that it actually provides a path forward,” said Loren Remillard, CEO and president of the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce. “It doesn’t provide certainty, and we don’t expect that of our government when things are constantly shifting.

“But it’s a solid document which gives people a sense of control that cannot be overstated when so much fatigue and mental health burnout is happening right now. And it’s powerful because it enables a framework for recovery, while giving rise to consumer confidence.”

Under Saskatchewan’s road map, three steps are dedicated to meeting the benchmark of 70 per cent people vaccinated for different age groups: people 40 and older (for Step 1, expected to be met by the last week of May); 30 and older (Step 2 by third week in June); and 18 and older (Step 3 by the second week of July).

That approach would allow capacity limits for restaurants, bars, fitness centres, bingo halls, theatres, libraries and retail or personal services to gradually lift under each step. It would also slowly increase indoor and outdoor gathering sizes and change masking guidance.

“It’s the biggest encouragement and peace of mind Manitoba could offer to businesses,” said Jonathan Alward, Prairies director for the Canadian Federation of Independent Business. “But more than that, it also allows them to anticipate hiring and anything else they need to be prepared for during the summer.”

The average Manitoba business is currently $180,000 in debt, according to the CFIB. “There’s a lot that goes into paying back any of that money,” said Alward.

“Businesses have been under the stress of closures or stringent capacity limits for more than a year now, so certainly anything to help them should be top of the list for the government.”

Barry Cooper, vice-president of the Brandon Chamber, agreed.

“At the end of the day, we’ve all consistently asked for something like this,” he said. “And if Manitoba has the opportunity to steal a good idea, I say, why not do it?”

Temur Durrani, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Free Press

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting