Saskatchewan Examiner

Wednesday, December 6, 2023

New COVID rules will force Sask. to ‘reimagine’ Christmas

Retail won’t face heightened restrictions until Dec. 25, but households will face tough rules that make traditional celebrations impossible.

Saskatchewan is clamping down on private gatherings over the holiday season and hitting retail with new restrictions starting Christmas Day, as COVID-19 cases remain stubbornly high despite the government’s push for a slow down.

Chief medical health officer Dr. Saqib Shahab said families will have to “reimagine” Christmas. Premier Scott Moe called the measures announced Monday a “bitter pill” for him and for families across the province.

“It’s a little bit of Buckley’s,” he said. “It doesn’t taste very good, but it is absolutely necessary for us to preserve the capacity we have in our health-care system.”

Effective Thursday, the province will limit private indoor gatherings to immediate households only, though single people can meet with one other household of less than five people. Co-parenting and childcare arrangements can continue, as can outdoor gatherings up to 10 with physical distancing.

Moe had held out hope early this month that transmission could fall in time to relax restrictions for the holiday season, but the new measures will make anything approaching traditional festivities impossible.

Shahab said close contact indoors is the major culprit driving continued spread of COVID-19, as the seven-day average has remained steady at more than 260 cases of COVID-19 per day. On Monday, the province reported 269 new cases and two additional deaths, bringing the total number of deaths in the province to 91 since the pandemic began.

That’s despite a range of restrictions introduced last month, which Moe defended as “effective” on Monday.

“I think the measures have been successful, but we do need to push our numbers down even more,” he said.

Bars and restaurants can continue operating under existing restrictions, while some venues can still host up to 30 people. But bingo halls and casinos must close effective Saturday, when personal service businesses like hairdressers, massage therapists and tattoo artists must also limit their capacity to 50 per cent.

Then, effective Christmas Day, all retail services must reduce capacity to 50 per cent. Large retail locations with more than 20,000 square feet of floor space, currently limited to 50 per cent, are now restricted to just 25 per cent capacity.

The new measures are in addition to current orders, which were previously set to expire on Thursday. Now, they will be extended until Jan. 15 along with the new measures. At that point, all measures will be reviewed by Shahab.

He said more severe restrictions could follow if Saskatchewan people aren’t careful over the holidays. Moe echoed that view, while continuing to reject the notion of a circuit breaker or a lockdown for the time being.

“In saying that, it may be necessary at some point,” he said.

NDP Leader Ryan Meili, who has been calling for stronger restrictions for weeks, called the government’s approach “chaotic” and rife with contradictions.

“We have schools closing early while bars and restaurants remain open,” he said in a statement. “Family gatherings have been effectively reduced to zero — unless you meet for drinks or dinner or rent a hall.”

Moe argued that cases connected to private gatherings have been triple the cases from all workplace exposures, even as hundreds of cases remain untraced to any source.

Meili asked why the government is delaying retail restrictions until after the busiest shopping season of the year. He said Moe missed the chance to rein in cases earlier with less severe measures, and cast the new restrictions as a lockdown in all but name.

“There is nothing that was announced today that could not have been put in effect weeks earlier…” Meili said. “This government’s chaotic, wait-and-see approach has led to lockdown measures that are at once more severe and less effective.”

But Marilyn Braun-Pollon, vice-president for Western Canada at the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, said she appreciated the province’s “targeted and balanced” approach. She said many of her members would go bust in a second forced closure.

She said she’s grateful measures limiting small retail capacity won’t take hold under Christmas Day so stores can “maximize the holiday season.”

Minnie Kinar, a barber for decades, said the damage is already done. “Whatever happens now is really inconsequential,” she said.

The owner of Minnie’s Barber Shop in downtown Saskatoon said the new restrictions won’t affect her, in part because business is already quiet.

Kinar doesn’t have any magic solution to the challenge she’s facing. She’s glad she doesn’t have to close down again. She’s hoping things will get back to normal before she hangs up her scissors.

“I’m 65 years old, you know? I don’t want to end my career this way, and I’m not ready to quit,” she said.

– with files from Zak Vescera

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