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Saskatchewan’s health minister is expanding rules around masks and imposing a wider alcohol curfew as he urges people to take personal responsibility in following COVID-19 public health advice.

Paul Merriman has announced that, effective Monday, masks will be mandatory in indoor public spaces in any community with a population of more than 5,000.

Restaurants and bars will have to stop selling alcohol at 10 p.m. and make sure that patrons have finished their drinks one hour later. Use of hookah and water pipes in lounges won’t be allowed.

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Merriman characterized the new measures that will be in place for 28 days as a “slowdown.”

“A slowdown is how we will avoid another lockdown. I’m not going to sugar-coat the situation. It’s not great and it’s been getting worse,” he said Friday.

The province is also tightening rules for gyms: aerobic fitness activities must have no more than eight participants and they must be spaced three metres apart.

And high schools with more than 600 students were asked to reduce in-class learning.

Merriman said the government wants to take a measured, targeted approach to stem the virus’s spread. However, he stopped short of bringing in harsher penalties for people who don’t comply.

“The individual responsibility on this is the greatest responsibility out there right now,” he said.

Hundreds of doctors who signed a letter earlier in the week urging stronger action from the provincial government penned a new one after Friday’s announcement. It said the rules are not enough to stop community transmission of the novel coronavirus.

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“It is clear that, without aggressive intervention, case numbers will continue to increase exponentially here just as they have in Alberta and Manitoba,” it read.

The physicians want the province to take specific measures such as an education campaign to address myths around the virus as well as making masks mandatory in all public indoor spaces, regardless of population size.

“What is the government afraid of and why is the government not actually acting based on the latest science?” Dr. Anne Huang, a former deputy medical officer, asked in regards to mandatory masks provincewide.

She said the added Friday’s measures could result in daily cases plateauing at around 60 to 80 new infections, but feels that’s not enough to dramatically reduce the virus’s spread or its threat to the province’s health system.

“If the government intends for the COVID-19 fire to spread in the province, then the public deserves to know what that might look like. Are people OK with getting COVID-19 and maybe not having their heart attack addressed?”

Chief medical health officer Dr. Saqib Shahab said people are being encouraged to wear a mask wherever they live in the province. He said the health-care system and those doing contact tracing have felt pressures in recent weeks as case numbers and hospitalizations have risen.

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Shahab reported 81 new cases Friday, the lowest number in recent days. and the first time in almost a week that the daily tally was under 100.

Health officials said 53 people were in hospital and 15 were receiving intensive care. Both numbers were higher than the day before.

“If we see cases that some other jurisdictions have seen in North America, Canada and Europe, then unfortunately the only option is a significant slowdown or lockdown,” Shahab said.

“We do need to give this a good solid try before we move into more restrictive measures.”

The leaders of different economic groups and chambers of commerce circulated their own letter on Friday in support of the government’s approach.

“Returning to a widespread, large-scale lockdown would be catastrophic to Saskatchewan jobs, Saskatchewan families, and on the immediate survivability of Saskatchewan businesses – even with new and extensive government intervention,” it read.

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Premier Scott Moe, who wasn’t at the announcement, has repeatedly said he believes the virus can be controlled without having to impose a lockdown, as was done in the spring when the pandemic first arrived.

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