Saskatchewan epidemiologist calls for second COVID-19 shutdown

A Saskatoon epidemiologist says the province’s “wait-and-see approach” to surging COVID-19 cases is a bust.

Dr. Nazeem Muhajarine is calling for a stay-at-home order to drive case counts down, as lockdown was largely effective last spring.

“I’m afraid of what… is in store for us in the coming weeks and months,” Muhajarine told Global News.

As of Tuesday, Saskatchewan has the highest rate of active COVID-19 cases in the country, at 319 per every 100,000 people. The average across Canada is 215 per 100,000.

Read more: Coronavirus: Saskatchewan has highest rate of active COVID-19 cases in Canada

“We should not have to be in this spot of being at the top of the league board,” Muhajarine said, pointing to Saskatchewan’s low population density.

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“We need to have (case counts) reverse course… and monitor it and get it down to a level that is manageable for our system.”

He’s calling for restrictions similar to those enacted last spring, shutting down bars, restaurants, gyms, banquet halls and more.

Muhajarine said he’s disappointed in the government’s decision to maintain its current public health orders for two additional weeks, instead of enacting more firm restrictions like other jurisdictions. The province should move away from date-based restrictions, he added.

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“What really matters is the community prevalence of COVID,” he said.

Muhajarine said Saskatchewan could, for example, enact a stay-at-home order until the case rate falls to 50 per every 100,000 people.

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Current orders ban indoor gatherings (with exceptions for support services and those living alone) and limit outdoor, distanced gatherings to 10 people. Public businesses are to operate at significantly reduced capacity.

Chief Medical Health Officer Dr. Saqib Shahab said on Tuesday the rise in cases is largely due to rule-breaking.

The government must enforce its orders more strictly and should not rely on public compliance, Muhajarine said.

“If that was the case, we wouldn’t have any laws at all,” he said.

Shahab did not rule out stricter measures going forward.

Business owners weigh in on shutdown

Two Saskatoon business owners said a second shutdown would hurt, but they’ll do what it takes to keep people safe.

“If that’s what is being deemed as the responsible choice… then that’s what we’re willing to do,” said Carmen Hamm, co-owner of Taste Restaurant Group.

“Is that our preference? No.”

Three of Hamm’s four restaurants are open. Traffic has been steady, she said, though restrictions mean only a small number of people are allowed inside at a time.

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Read more: Coronavirus hospitalizations top 200 for 1st time in Saskatchewan

If the government eventually orders businesses to close, Hamm said she’d hope restaurants would be given time to prepare so they could use up their food stock.

“If we can ensure that some of those costs can be curbed a little bit and that our staff are taken care of, that’s the biggest thing that we need to be worried about,” she said.

The owner of a local garden centre said the government must consider the main sources of infection if it were to order businesses to close.

“If they’re coming from a retail spot, then maybe that’s what we need to do,” said Nikki van Duyvendyk, owner of Dutch Growers.

“But… if everyone is following the rules and that’s not where cases are coming from, then I think that’s going to hurt the economy even more.”

Last November, the Saskatchewan Health Authority said community transmission was most common at recreational facilities, gatherings, group homes and shelters. Restaurants were fifth on the list, largely because of spread between staff, while retail was not in the top 10.

Van Duyvendyk said her customers are mindful of safety.

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“Compared to the spring… our customers are more knowledgeable about the pandemic and the rules around it,” she said.

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