Provinces and municipalities across the country are clamping down on travel and gatherings in an attempt to slow the spread of the Omicron variant, introducing rapidly changing restrictions that are leaving Canadians scrambling to adjust holiday plans.
British Columbia announced Tuesday it is closing bars and gyms, banning indoor gatherings such as weddings and Christmas parties as well as limiting all concerts, sports games and other events to half their full capacity starting Wednesday night. The province, which reported a record 1,308 new cases Tuesday, is also postponing surgeries beginning in January to ensure hospital space and staffing are in place as COVID-19 cases continue to spike, while bringing back mass immunization centres to ramp up the delivery of booster shots.
B.C.’s Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry said that it is inevitable most of the people on Canada’s West Coast will be exposed to the new more infectious Omicron variant at some point. She did not explicitly outlaw people from visiting family in other parts of the province this holiday season, but cautioned everyone to keep their private gatherings as small as possible and stay home if they are feeling sick or are unvaccinated.
“People needed a break and wanted a break, but it also became very clear that if we didn’t do something more dramatic, more intense, right now we couldn’t recover from it,” said Dr. Henry, explaining the new rules are driven by modelling done Sunday that showed the variant’s growing hold on B.C.
On Canada’s East Coast, travellers to Newfoundland and Labrador rushed to rebook flights ahead of a Tuesday afternoon deadline this week that required all new arrivals to self-isolate for five days. The new restrictions left some people cancelling plans to see family just days before Christmas, while others joined crowds opting for earlier flights into the St. John’s airport, where long lines of travellers clutching vaccine passports were greeted with rapid tests.
Prince Edward Island also announced it was taking steps to control the flow of travellers onto the island for the holidays. Starting Wednesday at 8 a.m., all people entering the province are required to quarantine for four days, and may come out of isolation only after two negative rapid tests. Premier Dennis King said he regretted the decision but was forced to do something after the province reached a record level of active COVID-19 cases, with 112.
“I can honestly say from the bottom of my heart I’m sorry we are going through this,” Mr. King told reporters. “This is not the situation we planned to be in.”
Nova Scotia’s Premier Tim Houston, who said he wouldn’t introduce travel restrictions because Omicron was already surging in his province, announced new limits to gathering that included cutting funerals and weddings to 25 per cent of their legal capacity, reducing nursing home visitors and restricting gatherings in private homes to 10 people. In-person events such as festivals, receptions, sports games or cultural performances are also temporarily banned.
The province reported 522 new cases on Tuesday, a new all-time high.
“We did not want to impose more restrictions on Nova Scotians leading into the holidays. But even if illness remains mild, the exponential spread of the Omicron variant is threatening critical workforces like health care, fire, police and paramedics,” Mr. Houston told reporters, via video conference from his home in Pictou, N.S.
“We need further restrictions to ensure everyone slows down, reins in their socializing, and limits opportunities for the virus to spread. It may mean a smaller Christmas dinner than you’d planned, but it’s better to be small and safe.”
In New Brunswick, new restrictions that will begin Dec. 27 were announced Tuesday, including limiting social contacts to 10 people and cutting restaurant capacity by half. The province released modelling that suggested cases of COVID-19 could double by the end of the month.
“When you get a forecast of a storm coming, that’s when you start preparing. So we’re battening down the hatches. It’s coming, and we need to tighten up,” said Premier Blaine Higgs, who asked people to cancel plans for holiday parties.
“We need to keep the gatherings as minimal as possible.”
In Quebec, the City of Montreal declared a local state of emergency in an effort to slow the spread of the Omicron variant that is rising dramatically. Quebec reported yet another new daily record of 5,043 cases, with Montreal accounting for 1,656 of them.
“We will be able now, with the state of emergency, to be pro-active. We are more in charge, if I can say, in some decisions,” said Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante, who recently announced she tested positive for COVID-19.
Ontario, which reported 3,453 new cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday, has already announced similar restrictions on social gatherings and capacity limits for gyms, restaurants and bars that take effect Saturday. Quebec is also limiting indoor gatherings to 10 people.
In Manitoba, which reported 302 new cases Tuesday, new restrictions mean private indoor gatherings with vaccinated people are now limited to household members plus 10 other people. If any of those people are unvaccinated, gatherings are limited to one household plus five guests. Gyms, movie theatres and restaurants are now limited to half capacity.
Alberta’s Premier Jason Kenney asked people to reduce their socializing, but did not impose rules on private gatherings. Instead, on Tuesday, the government trimmed capacity at large venues to 50 per cent starting Christmas Eve, arguing those limits will help curb superspreader events.
“I trust Albertans, in the vast majority of cases, will make good choices,” Mr. Kenney told reporters.
He urged people to reduce social contacts by half and suggested employers cancel Christmas parties. Alberta last week eased restrictions on private gatherings.
Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, said Alberta identified its first Omicron case three weeks ago and it is too early to predict how this stretch of the pandemic will unfold. The province had earlier said it was days away from implementing its triage protocol in the fourth wave, meaning health care workers would have to calculate which patients received life-changing treatment at the expense of others.
Asked whether it is possible to avoid triage in Alberta without Omicron proving to be extremely mild, Dr. Hinshaw said “the only way to alter the trajectory of the growth” is to minimize the number of contacts that people maintain in their daily lives.
Saskatchewan’s top doctor said Tuesday that projected COVID-19 case numbers will rise sharply without stronger public-health measures, but that the province is not expecting to tighten restrictions over the holidays.
Saqib Shahab, the province’s Chief Medical Health Officer, said Tuesday that he had recommended internally to the government that people in Saskatchewan need to reduce contacts by 50 per cent. No further restrictions have been implemented, with the province releasing holiday guidelines for rapid testing and ventilation instead.
Dr. Shahab said Omicron is not dominant in Saskatchewan, although it is expected to spread widely in a few weeks.
“We will see a surge with Omicron, we can’t escape that,” he said.
With a report from The Canadian Press
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