Team sports suspended for three weeks as Sask. attempts to put brakes on COVID spread

Restrictions announced Wednesday also include capacity caps of 30 on recreational facilities and a 50 per cent cut in capacity for big box stores

Saskatchewan's Chief Medical Health Officer Dr. Saqib Shahab. (Screenshot)

Sports will go on hold, recreational facilities receive attendance caps and mask use expanded Friday as Saskatchewan continues to introduce new measures in an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19.

The new measures will remain in effect until December 17, at which point they will be reviewed by the chief medical health officer.

“COVID-19 transmission rates in Saskatchewan continue to increase, resulting in serious illness and deaths, placing provincial health care resources under increasing strain,” the province said.

“Additional public health measures are being introduced based on the transmission patterns observed in Saskatchewan, providing further guidance to help reduce COVID-19 case numbers over the coming weeks.”

All team and group sports and dance activities including games, competitions, recitals and practices are suspended, including amateur and recreational leagues for all age groups. The province included a non-exhaustive list of hockey, curling, racquet sports, cheerleading and group dance practices.

Athletes and dancers 18 years of age and younger may continue practicing, conditioning and skills training in groups of eight or fewer, wear masks and ensure at least three metres of physical distancing between them at all times.

Individual groups of eight can’t share a training or rehearsal surface or space at the same time. Coaches and trainers are not included in the eight-person cap so long as they are masked and remain at least three metres away.

Fitness activities in groups of eight or fewer are still allowed for all ages so long as mask use and three metres of physical distancing is maintained.

Places of worship, performing arts venues and gaming venues will have their capacities restricted to 30 people. That includes casinos, bingo halls, theatres, arenas and other venues currently supporting a capacity of 150 people. Food and beverage service must be kept separate from the activity area.

Indoor public banquets, conferences and wedding and funeral receptions will also be limited to 30 people, and food and beverages will be prohibited.

Malls and retail businesses enhance the use of masks and mitigation measures such as directional flow signage. Large retail locations will be expected to limit customer access to 50 per cent capacity or four square metres of space per person, whichever is less. That applies to retailers with more than 20,000 square feet.

Mandatory non-medical masks will be expanded to all students, employees and visitors in all schools and daycares, with the exception of children aged 0-2. Children ages 3-12 should wear a mask if they are able to.

 All employees and visitors in all common areas in businesses and workplaces, even in areas closed to the public, must also wear masks.

Mask use will also be required in all common areas in provincial and municipal correctional facilities.

Restaurant tables will be limited to four seats and tables must be at least 2 metres apart, unless there aren’t physical barriers, at which point they will need to be 3 metres apart. Guests must sign in and provide contact information for contact tracing purposes.

Chief Medical Helth Officer Dr. Saqib Shahab and Premier Scott Moe said the further restrictions were necessary to protect the health care system.

“It would be great if we could pinpoint one or two (venues) where the spread is occurring, but the reality is COVID is in our communities and is spreading in a number of places both inside and outside of our homes,” moe said.

He added that a full shut down isn’t currently being considered because it would be “unfair” to all the businesses and sectors of the economy that have been able to operate safely. He said his government’s approach is about “trying to minimize the impact on people’s jobs and livelihoods.

“There is no silver bullet to controlling COVID-19,” Moe said.

“There is no one place, no one activity responsible for spreading this virus. There is no one practice, restriction or guidelines that would prevent the spread of this virus. We have to do all of it and we have to keep doing all of it each and every day.”

Shahab said the current data — with daily new case counts averaging more than 200, and the test positivity rate hovering at about 6.6 per cent — shows that the transmission risk is in the community and is “Why we have to slow things down and spread things out.”

He said transmission of the virus isn’t happening at superspreader events anymore nor is it being tied to private gatherings.

“When we look at other transmission settings … recreational facilities and sports facilities do stand out.”

A breakdown of where community spread is happening was released by the SHA Tuesday. It showed that 25 per cent of the traceable spread of COVID-19 could be tied to sports and recreation. Only two per cent was tied to places of worship.

Shahab said Wednesday that many of those cases popping up in arenas and on sports teams were then being brought into the workplace and into the classroom. He said teams and facilities were doing their best, but it gets difficult as team after team comes into and out of dressing rooms and other shared facilities.

“We’re pausing play for three weeks so we can trend these numbers down,” Shahab said.

He also addressed the retail sector, where there have been some reports of crowding, especially during sales. Once you’re inside a store, you have to be able to space out, he said.

“Hopefully with this, we can see our numbers trending downwards,” Shahab said.

“If they start trending up again, further measures will have to be considered, which would be hard to propose and implement but would be necessary to protect the health care system, which has come under stress.”

As of Wednesday, there were 111 COVID-19 patients in the hospital, of which 19 were in intensive care. Facilities in the province’s urban centres are already dealing with capacity issues as the number of patients with COVID-19 and COVID-like symptoms increases.

“What we’re asking Saskatchewan people is to comply with the public health order that is being administered understanding that … we can preserve the capacity of our health care system (and) keep the economic sectors of our province open,” Moe said.

“Although there have been some instances where individuals have stepped above the guidelines, by and large the vast majority of Saskatchewan businesses have done a remarkable job of adhering to the advice that has been provided by Dr. Shahab and his team and we expect that to continue.”

If people don’t comply, Moe said he would expect public health investigators and law enforcement to lay fines.

He added that his government will look at ways to support industries that have been ordered to close, and that once things are allowed to open up again, suggestions on operating safely will also be considered.

Shahab said the concern is uncontrolled surge in case numbers, which can “very rapidly overwhelm the health system.” While that’s been avoided for the time being and recent restrictions have prevented that exponential growth, it hasn’t been enough to bring that growing case count down.

Shahab said it takes only five to six days for the next generation of COVID-cases to become infected. Conversely, most hospitalizations show up two to three weeks after that initial exposure to the virus, meaning surges from this current wave of cases haven’t hit yet.

While Moe and Shahab are confident the new restrictions will be enough and will prevent a lockdown of non-essential sectors of the economy, they stressed that the restrictions are only part of the puzzle and that residents themselves have a large role to play buy staying home if sick, wearing a mask in public, washing their hands, staying home when possible and remaining at least 2 metres apart.

Recent modelling of pandemic data has shown that the more people follow public health measures, the slower infection spreads, flattening the pandemic curve.

“All of us complying diligently is what makes the difference,”  Shahab said.

“It is always what made the difference.”