Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe on Tuesday rejected calls for a temporary shutdown of non-essential businesses but restricted the number of people allowed to gather inside a home to stem the rise in COVID-19 cases.
Effective Thursday, no more than five people will be allowed to gather at a home, down from the previous limit of 10.
Moe also announced a handful of other new public-health measures.
Visits to long-term and personal care homes will only be allowed on compassionate grounds and masks will be mandatory in indoor public spaces across the province.
It has been mandatory to wear a mask in Regina, Saskatoon and Prince Albert for almost two weeks. On Monday, face coverings also became a requirement in communities with over 5,000 residents.
Moe said the Saskatchewan Party government heard that the mask mandate excluding rural areas was confusing, so it was changed.
The premier said the goal of the added measures for the next four weeks is to “bend that curve” of COVID-19 before Christmas to avoid another shutdown of businesses and activities like the one in the spring.
“We may get to a lockdown in the days ahead,” he told a news briefing in Regina.
“Manitoba got there when they were at 500 cases a day, where they made that decision. We’re up now where we’ve had a couple of days of 200 cases (per day) and we feel that we have some time … we do have some time here to slow down.”
On Tuesday, the province reported 240 new infections and a rise in hospital admissions to 71, with 15 people in intensive care.
Chief medical health officer, Dr. Saqib Shahab, said nothing is off the table in terms of possible public-health measures.
The province is disallowing party buses and says it’s reviewing operational guidelines for worship services, recreational activities and the hospitality sector.
People employed in those areas and participants should expect to see changes, Moe said.
“The government has had nearly nine months for consultation. We need action now,” said Opposition NDP health critic Vicki Mowat.
Moe rejected a call from the Saskatchewan Union of Nurses and hundreds of doctors to shut down non-essential businesses, such as bingo halls, bars, nightclubs and gyms, for at least two weeks to allow staff to catch up on contact tracing and testing, as well as to provide a break to intensive care units.
The premier said a second mass closure of businesses would amount to thousands more jobs lost.
“The consequences of a lockdown are real. The 15,000 people that are not back at work yet from our first lockdown – I would say that the consequences for those individuals and their families is very real.”
An economic shutdown would also take a toll on people’s mental health, he said.
Gatherings outside of a household are being discouraged and Moe said workplaces should try to have employees work from home if possible.
The NDP accused Moe’s government of sending mixed messages with its public-health advice.
Moe and Shahab said there are reasons why it is better for people to gather in restaurants instead of at home.
Businesses have more controls in place to prevent transmission of the virus, they said. When relatives or friends come over, people tend to let down their guard.
Health officials have said intensive care units in Saskatoon are running at 130 per cent capacity and some out-of-town patients have been diverted to units in different cities.
Besides adding pressure on hospitals, the virus has spread into long-term care homes, which has drawn concerns from doctors and the Opposition NDP.
The province has reported cases in at least eight personal care and assisted living facilities, as well as in three group homes. There are also 19 schools with confirmed cases.