Private gatherings down to five, mask order expanded province-wide in effort to avoid lockdown

Premier Scott Moe. (Government of Saskatchewan/Screenshot)

The provincial government has further tightened its COVID-19 restrictions in the hope of getting cases under control ahead of Christmas.

As of Thursday, masks will be mandatory at all indoor public places across Saskatchewan, in-home gatherings will be restricted to five people, visiting will be prohibited in long-term care except for compassionate reasons and services such as limousines and party buses will be banned from use.

The private gathering threshold of five means any family of five or more can’t invite anyone else over.

Additionally, everyone who can work from home is being encouraged to do so and the province is consulting with sectors such as bars and restaurants, sports and recreation and places of worship about how to further adjust the way they do business to minimize risk. Residents are also being urged to only meet with their immediate household. Single residents can identify one other household to associate with.

The restrictions will remain in place until Thursday, Dec. 17, at which point they will be subject to review from the province’s chief medical health officer, Dr. Saqib Shahab. If numbers have trended downward, there’s a possibility of relaxing restrictions in time for Christmas.

Speaking to reporters Tuesday, Premier Scott Moe and Shahab said the new measures are an attempt to avoid a lockdown like what was seen in March and what has been done in other provinces.

“This is a slowdown, a significant, one-month slowdown. Let’s slow down the activity taking place outside of our home. Let’s slow down our movement. Let’s slow down and reduce our number of contacts. Let’s look for reasons to stay home instead of reasons to go out,” Moe said.

“This one-month slowdown is how we will slow the spread of the virus so that hopefully, we can begin to relax some of these restrictions in time for the Christmas and holiday season. I know these are difficult measures, but the consequences of case numbers continuing to rise is much more difficult.”

While last week the province said it would wait until current measures take hold before implementing new restrictions, Moe said he had heard that the most recent mask guidelines, mandating face coverings only in communities of 5,000 or more, were confusing.

“What I heard over the weekend is … we should just keep it simple and expand that across the province,” the premier said.

“We’re changing that here today.”

While other jurisdictions are contemplating what they’re calling a “circuit breaker”, or temporary one-month lockdown to get the pandemic under control, Moe said that the province is doing everything it can to avoid that outcome, and the economic and mental impacts that come with it.

“There are consequences to a circuit breaker — a short-term lockdown. It’s important for us to realize what those consequences are as well,” Moe said.

He said the province’s last lockdown resulted in 70,000 jobs lost. Of those, about 55,000 were recovered. A second lockdown, he said, would result in the permanent loss of tens of thousands of jobs.

“We want to ensure we are doing everything we can to continue to operate the sectors of our economy but also the sectors of our community as safely as we can,” Moe said.

“We’re going to do everything we can to work with those impacted and to provide every opportunity to stay open … in a safer manner than they are today.”

Saskatchewan with third-highest number of active cases per capita

Shahab, who said he will release updated modelling projections Thursday, outlined the province’s current COVID-19 situation. Of all reported cases since March, he said, 38 per cent are still active.

“We are not only in our first sustained wave, it is rapidly accelerating,” he said.

Saskatchewan’s number of active cases per capita are the third-highest in Canada, he said, behind only Alberta and Manitoba.

He added that the strain is adding up on the province’s contact tracing team, as each case is averaging five to eight close contacts. Multiplied by 200 cases per day, that’s 1,000 close contacts requiring investigation.

“This pace is not sustainable,” Shahab said.

“We need to turn this around.”

He said the province is targeting 120 cases per day, but really needs numbers to average below 150 cases per day.

“If we start hitting 250-300 cases per day on average, that becomes more critical.”

More people are testing positive, he said. The test positive rate is over six per cent. The target to keep the virus spread manageable is under five.

The current high community spread is leading to concerns in vulnerable sectors. Saskatchewan has had 20 cases of COVID-19 in its long-term care settings. Thirteen of those were in the last month alone.

“This is just a reflection of high transmission rates in the community,” Shahab said.

It’s also led to higher numbers of COVID-19 cases in the hospital. Tuesday, those numbers were 71 total, including 56 inpatients and 15 ICU patients.

More COVID-19 cases in the hospital means it’s harder for patients to access other services. It also slows down the health care system as a whole because COVID-19 patients require dedicated spaces and dedicated staff. Already, hospitals in Saskatoon, Prince Albert, Regina and Moose Jaw are being pressured by increasing numbers of COVID-19 patients.

It’s important, Moe said, to think about those numbers as people.

“Each and every one of these numbers represents a Saskatchewan person, our friends and neighbours who happen to have contracted what is a very dangerous disease,” he said.

“Most will recover, but some are going to get sick. Some are going to die. That is why we need to slow the spread of this virus in our communities and that is why we are taking the steps in our community today.”

Saskatchewan is trending in the wrong direction. Reporting from the Estevan Mercury’s Brian Zinchuk shows that Saskatchewan is on the same path Manitoba was two weeks ago. Monday, the eastern neighbours saw 392 cases and ten more deaths.

Saskatchewan, if it can bend its curve today, can avoid a similar outcome in two weeks.

“If we can lower our community infection rate, that is the best way for us to keep it out of our school, our long-term care homes, our hospitals, and that’s why we’re making the decisions today,” Moe said.

That’s why difficult decisions, such as restricting visits in long-term care, were made.

“We understand that this is an extremely difficult measure for so many people especially as we enter this holiday time of year. But there is one thing worse than not allowing visitors into our long term care centres and that’s allowing COVID into our long-term care centres.

“We know the outcome of that can be deadly and devastating. We’ve seen that across this nation and around the world and we don’t want to see it here.”