Church minister blasts Manitoba’s ‘unconscionable’ move to dilute restrictions

A Winnipeg minister says she is “stunned, confused and angry” after the provincial government announced it was not going through with banning gatherings as announced by health officials.

“We are so disappointed in our government for not respecting the doctors and the researchers in this province. We think that if if we do not follow their recommendations, this [battle against COVID-19] is going to go on forever,” said Rev. Loraine Mackenzie Shepherd, the minister at Westworth United Church.

Earlier this week, Chief Provincial Public Health Officer Dr. Brent Roussin said new restrictions that kicked in on Thursday would include no gatherings with people outside a household. Social gatherings would strictly be prohibited.

But on Wednesday, a few hours before the new restrictions were to begin, the province backtracked. It announced indoor and outdoor gathering sizes would be allowed, but capped at five people — in addition to the number who reside in a household.

Several members of Rev. Loraine Mackenzie Shepherd’s congregation at Westworth United Church plan to write letters to the government to protest the reduced rules. (Submitted by Rev. Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd)

Shepherd worries many more people will die if the province doesn’t enact — and keep — tough restrictions.

“I was finding hope that everyone I met was bracing themselves for a period of social isolation and loss of jobs and accepting this suffering for the sake of the vulnerable in our midst,” she said.

“It seemed as if we were pulling together compassionately and resolutely. [Wednesday’s] breaking news that the government is walking back Dr. Roussin’s recommendation that households remain isolated is incredulous and unconscionable.” 

Roussin said Tuesday the severe restrictions were intended to serve as a “circuit breaker” to slow the spread of COVID-19.

“Now they’re just trying to unplug a few appliances, and if we don’t move to the circuit breaker, it’s actually going to last longer and we’ll actually have more social isolation in the long run,” Shepherd said.

“I understand that it is social gatherings, not stores, that have been super-spreaders of the virus. Why would stores remain shut while social gatherings outside of one’s household [will] be allowed again? Why sacrifice the economy when a significant source of contagion is still allowed?”

Following the announcement of the modified restrictions late Wednesday, Roussin suggested the province had no legal means of enforcing household-only socialization.

Still, he urged Manitobans to stay home and not to socialize outside of their household, even if it is technically permitted.

Chief Provincial Public Health Officer Dr. Brent Roussin suggested the province has no legal means of enforcing household-only socialization, which is why it was changed from a rule to a recommendation. (David Lipnowski/The Canadian Press)

Two people in Shepherd’s congregation have COVID-19, and they know how quickly it can spread, she said. Several members of the congregation plan to write letters to the government to protest the less stringent rules.

“We were stunned and confused and angry. I believe that most of us were willing to make such sacrifices for the long-term welfare of our community,” she said.

“Now we are confused and angry that some have sacrificed their jobs while others continue to gather socially.

“Minister [Cameron] Friesen and Premier [Brian] Pallister, please listen to and respect the advice of the doctors and researchers in this province. We need to stand united, not divided.”

Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman on Thursday echoed Roussin’s plea, asking people to avoid social gatherings even if it is only a recommendation and not a rule.

“Don’t get together with friends. This is not the time for those sorts of interactions and I would just reinforce that messaging, whether there’s an order or not,” he said.

“The less interactions you have with people, the better.”

The city has inspectors out making sure people adhere to the other rules that are in place as part of the critical, or red, level of the provincial pandemic response system.

One business recently was slapped with the maximum fine of $5,000 for failing to comply with public health orders.

Individuals face fines of $1,296 for any breaches.

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