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Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba's Chief Public Health Officer, speaks during a news conference at the legislature, in Winnipeg, on March 31, 2020.JOHN WOODS/The Canadian Press

The Manitoba government placed new restrictions on travel Thursday to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

Dr. Brent Roussin, the province’s Chief Public Health Officer, slapped a temporary ban on non-essential travel to northern and remote communities until May 1. He also ordered that anyone entering Manitoba from another province during that time must self-isolate for 14 days.

The reason, Dr. Roussin said, is that travel remains the main factor in the province’s COVID-19 cases, not community transmission.

“We’re putting up these travel bans to ensure that … we have everything in place to prevent the importation of the virus, as well as the ability to prevent taking that virus to communities where the spread would be quite risky,” Dr. Roussin said.

Northern residents can continue to travel in the region, and there are several exceptions to the ban on southern residents heading north, such as people who travel for work, child custody, health care or to deliver goods and services.

The mandatory self-isolation for people arriving in Manitoba from other provinces is in addition to a federal quarantine order for international arrivals.

Dr. Roussin hinted the restrictions on northern travel could be extended beyond May 1, even if current rules that limit business and personal activity in all areas of the province are relaxed.

“We’re protecting the northern communities, where remote isolated communities would be more at risk for transmission of the virus and severe outcomes.”

Dr. Roussin reported four new COVID-19 cases Thursday, bringing the province’s total to 250. Five people have died since the pandemic began and 121 have recovered.

The pandemic is expected to cost the Manitoba government billions of dollars this year in extra health spending and reduced tax revenues from a slowing economy.

Premier Brian Pallister announced earlier this week a plan to have many public-sector workers accept reduced workweeks in order to save money. The move would require the federal government to agree to extend employment insurance benefits under a work-share program, which is already available to the private sector and Crown corporations, to provincial civil servants.

Mr. Pallister stressed that layoffs are the alternative.

“Frankly, if the (public-sector) unions and the federal government want to force us to do layoffs, we’ll have to do some layoffs, there’s no doubt about it,” Mr. Pallister said Thursday.

He estimated about one-quarter of public-sector positions are seeing reduced activity because their offices are closed or members of the public are staying home during the pandemic.

The Manitoba Government and General Employees Union said it hasn’t been told which workers will be asked to work fewer hours.

“Government has not provided any answers whatsoever about which government workers they want to deem non-essential,” union president Michelle Gawronsky said in a written statement.

“The government’s inability to provide critical details about what they are proposing is making it very difficult for us to have a meaningful conversation with our members.”

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