Premier Brian Pallister responds to questions at the Legislative Building on Wednesday, May 20, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ruth Bonneville - POOL

Restaurants, gyms, churches: Manitoba opts to loosen some COVID-19 restrictions

WINNIPEG — The Manitoba government on Tuesday announced plans to reopen restaurants, museums, gyms and many other establishments — the same day the province reported its first COVID-19 case involving a variant that emerged in the United Kingdom.

“These changes, once again, are cautious changes to ensure we continue to protect and safeguard Manitobans’ lives,” Premier Brian Pallister said.

“We have folks who have waited patiently and … who know that they can offer services safely in their little businesses, or they can offer services to us in their stores and they’re ready to try.”

Starting Friday, restaurants will be able to offer eat-in dining for the first time since November, at 25 per cent capacity. Diners will only be allowed to sit with members of their household.

Gyms, museums, libraries and tattoo parlours will also be free to open at 25 per cent capacity. Indoor rinks and martial arts clubs will be limited to one-on-one instruction.

Indoor religious services will be allowed to resume at 10 per cent capacity or 50 people, whichever is less.

Many in the business community has waited for the news for a long time.

“I think, obviously, they’d like to be operating at a little bit more than 25 per cent capacity … but for the time being, they will take the opening and hope that we can continue to head in the same trajectory,” said Chuck Davidson, president of the Manitoba Chambers of Commerce.

The chamber is hoping the government will extend grants, currently available to businesses forced to close, to establishments that can reopen under capacity limits.

“Reopening at a quarter of what you could in the past is not going to pay all the bills,” Davidson said.

The Opposition said the Progressive Conservative government should boost intensive care units in the event the reopenings lead to a surge in new COVID-19 cases. The units started running well above normal capacity in the fall when daily case counts were 300 or more.

“I think it’s really, really important for the government to start training those nurses, training those staff people right now,” NDP Leader Wab Kinew said.

The loosened restrictions were announced as the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms was in court on behalf of seven churches challenging public health orders.

The centre’s lawyers argued that giving broad authority to the chief provincial health officer is unconstitutional. A lawyer for the province told court it’s within the bounds of the legislature to grant that authority.

The hearing was expected to continue Wednesday.

The centre has filed similar challengesin British Columbia and Alberta.

Health officials reported 71 additional COVID-19 cases Tuesday and three deaths.

The province’s chief public health officer, Dr. Brent Roussin, also revealed the first case of the U.K. variant in a person who had travelled.

“This individual was tested on the 21st … of January and had been self-isolating with five household contacts for the entire time,” Roussin said.

None of the household members has tested positive, he added. The province only received the results of the test that identified the variant Monday.

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