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Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister speaks during a news conference at the legislature, in Winnipeg, on Oct. 7, 2020.The Canadian Press

The Manitoba government is shutting down large parts of its economy and banning social gatherings in an attempt to curb a surge of COVID-19 cases and a record number of hospitalizations.

Starting Thursday, non-essential retail outlets and restaurants will be limited to curbside pickup and delivery, churches will not be allowed to hold in-person services, and people will be forbidden from social gatherings with anyone from outside their household.

Bars, museums and theatres will have to close and recreational activities will be suspended. The restrictions are expected to be in place for four weeks and are to be reviewed as case numbers change.

“We need to flatten our COVID curve and we need to do that now,” Premier Brian Pallister said Tuesday.

There has been a sharp rise in cases in Manitoba since a summer lull when, at one point in July, there was only one known active case.

There have since been outbreaks in long-term care homes and hospitals. There is widespread community transmission of the novel coronavirus. Intensive care beds, including those occupied by non-COVID-patients, are running close to capacity.

Manitoba leads all other provinces in per-capita active cases.

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Health officials reported 383 new cases Tuesday and five additional deaths for a total of 114. The number of people in hospital with the virus topped 200 for the first time and 30 of them were in intensive care.

Chief public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin said the province no longer has the ability to reduce case numbers by targeting specific areas such as bars and restaurants, as it did earlier.

“Our test positivity rate is up. We’re seeing a lot of community-based transmission, so now we just have to reduce contacts, period,” Roussin said.

The province is hoping to drive the rate of people testing positive down to three per cent, he added. It is currently at 10.6.

Among the few things not being shut down are schools. The current approach, which involves a mix of in-class and remote learning in many areas, is to continue because there has not been much transmission of the virus inside classrooms.

The Opposition said the closures should have been enacted much earlier, given that case numbers and deaths began to spike weeks ago.

“Three weeks ago had we acted decisively then, could we have avoided some of the pain that we’ve seen over the past few weeks? I think that’s very likely,” NDP Leader Wab Kinew said.

Pallister also announced new supports for small- and medium-sized businesses, non-profit groups and cultural organizations such as museums affected by the restrictions.

The help includes an upfront payment of $5,000, followed by another in January if restrictions remain in place. Pallister also committed $50 million to a longer-term support program in the new year to help economic recovery.

The Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce said the money will help.

“These announcements are very welcome and will go a long way in helping many businesses bridge to that post-COVID landscape,” chamber president Loren Remillard said.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau expressed optimism about early results for a new COVID-19 vaccine developed by Pfizer, saying there is now 'light at the end of the tunnel' when it comes to the pandemic.

The Canadian Press

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