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Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe speaks during a COVID-19 media update at the Legislative Building in Regina on Dec. 9, 2020. The Saskatchewan government is tightening its public-health orders for the holidays. Starting Thursday, only immediate household members can gather inside the same home, with few exceptions.

Michael Bell /The Canadian Press

Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe defended his government’s handling of a spike in COVID-19 cases as he tightened public-health restrictions Monday for the holidays

Starting Thursday, only immediate household members can be inside the same home, with a few exceptions, and outdoor gatherings will be restricted to 10 people.

“It has been a difficult few weeks,” Mr. Moe said at a news conference. “I think it’s safe to say we’re all tired of this.”

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“This needs to be a much quieter Christmas.”

Casinos and bingo halls must close Saturday – the only businesses ordered to do so – while personal care services such as hair salons will be limited to 50 per cent capacity.

Starting on Christmas Day, retail stores will be required to cut their capacity to half and large retailers will be restricted to 25 per cent.

The measures are to be in place until Jan. 15, when they will be reviewed. Previous rules, including wearing masks in indoor public spaces and a 30-person capacity limit for public venues, remain in place.

The additions to the existing public-health rules mark the toughest response Saskatchewan has seen since the spring to combat the virus’s spread.

But with in-person dining still allowed in restaurants and bars and customers able to enter many other types of businesses, Saskatchewan’s health orders remain the most relaxed in the region.

Saskatchewan has the third-highest rate of active cases per capita in Canada, behind Manitoba and Alberta. The two provinces have both ordered many businesses closed and activities suspended.

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Hundreds of health-care workers and the Opposition NDP have criticized Mr. Moe and his Saskatchewan Party government for not responding sooner to a steady increase in infections. They say he should have brought in restrictions weeks earlier and closed non-essential businesses.

“I am opposed to a circuit-breaker or a massive lockdown,” Mr. Moe said Monday. “I don’t believe it’s the right thing to do ... in saying that, it may be necessary at some point.

“It’s not off the table or out of the question.”

Public-health rules brought in late last month are working, Mr. Moe added.

“One can argue whether they’re effective enough or how effective they are, but they are effective,” he said

“Most certainly they’re effective when you compare where we are today in stopping the rate of increase of COVID-19 infections here in the province to where the modelling said we could be.”

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Dr. Saqib Shahab, Saskatchewan’s chief medical health officer, said case numbers are not going down as quickly as officials would like, but he has noticed people are having fewer contacts.

The province reported 269 new infections Monday. And its weekly average for new daily cases, which hasn’t budged below 250 for weeks, sat at 262.

The Correctional Service of Canada said 24 inmates at the Saskatchewan Penitentiary in Prince Albert had tested positive and the Canadian Red Cross was providing assistance with the outbreak. The inmates on a medium-security unit were being isolated. Visits to the facility have been suspended.

So far, no prison staff have tested positive.

The Saskatchewan NDP also urged the government to ask the military to help with spread of the novel coronavirus at long-term care homes.

Dr. Shahab said a main source of transmission in the province remains close indoor socializing, which is why the government is prohibiting unnecessary house guests. He added shopping hasn’t been a huge spreader of the virus.

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Dr. Shahab also spoke to racist comments made about him by an organizer of an antimask rally in Regina over the weekend.

“Racist comments speak more to the people making them than to whom they’re directed,” he said.

“I have my own privileges. I’m a male physician, well-paid, with a good job and I’m shielded from the harm that these comment make ... but we all know that there are many people in the province, and the world, who don’t have these privileges and protections.”

Mr. Moe condemned the comments as “disgusting,” “sickening” and “nothing short of idiotic.” He said he feels embarrassed they were made by someone in Saskatchewan.

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