Masks in all indoor public spaces and either proof of vaccination or a recent negative COVID-19 test - those are the terms for a pair of new Saskatchewan health orders.
The changes were announced by the province and public health officials Sept. 16, following weeks of increasing COVID-19 infections and deaths following the province’s full lifting of all pandemic restrictions starting july 11.
“The government of Saskatchewan is announcing new measures to address health care capacity pressures caused by rising case rates, primarily driven by the unvaccinated population,” reads a provincial announcement.
Two new deadlines will be in effect province-wide - one that starts Sept. 17, with another coming Oct. 1.
The first date will bring a mandatory masking order for all indoor public spaces across Saskatchewan, going into effect with a targeted lifting date of late October. Under that order, few exceptions are allowed - youth athletes playing a sport indoors will not need to wear a mask while playing, but they will need to wear masks while entering and exiting facilities.
The province classifies an indoor public space as “any enclosed space other than a private home or dwelling”, including stores, workplaces, restaurants, offices and others.
Starting Oct. 1, Saskatchewan will also require one of two things for people seeking to access some non-essential services and for provincial employees - proof of COVID-19 vaccination or proof of a recent negative COVID-19 test. The restrictions are similar to those in effect in Manitoba, which has a mask mandate for public indoor spaces and vaccine requirements to access certain places.
“Employees of all Government of Saskatchewan ministries, crowns and agencies will be required to have at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine by Oct. 1, with full vaccination requirements implemented by Oct. 20,” reads a provincial announcement.
“Employees that do not provide proof of vaccination will be required to provide proof of a negative test result on a consistent basis.”
Proof of either a negative recent test or of vaccination will be needed for people in Saskatchewan to eat inside at restaurants, go to bars or nightclubs, attend event centres, concerts, movie theatres, museums, sporting events and conference centres and to work out in fitness centres and gyms. Neither will be needed to go to stores, churches and places of worship, to pick up takeout or delivery food from restaurants, to access hospitals or health facilities, to visit hotels or to have private gatherings at home or at indoor venues.
No capacity limits for gatherings, either indoor or outdoor, public or private, were announced.
The province didn’t announce exact terms for the change in the initial announcement, saying more details will be released closer to Oct. 1. The province is not yet extending that policy to some public employees like school division workers, but is “encouraging” those groups to make the same rules.
The Saskatchewan government also plans to produce what it calls a “verifiable vaccination record” - essentially a vaccine passport system similar to those in use in Manitoba, which Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe had previously said he did not support. That record will be launched Sept. 20, with little other information available - more details are set to be released with the official launch.
Saskatchewan will also increase procurement of rapid antigen COVID-19 tests to be used at homes, in order to give quicker testing results - like other plans outlined in the announcement, little other information has been provided about how many tests will be bought and where they will go or be available.
Saskatchewan has seen Canada’s highest bump in COVID-19 infections in the past six weeks, with over 4,000 active cases as of Sept. 17, including more than 2,000 active cases in northern communities. In the far north east 2 health zone, which includes Creighton, Denare Beach, Pelican Narrows, Sandy Bay and other communities in the region, 199 people currently have COVID-19 cases, including 14 more people who tested positive Sept. 16.
By contrast, Manitoba has 599 active cases of COVID-19, including 129 in the Northern Health Region (NHR). There are nearly four times as many active COVID-19 infections in northern Saskatchewan alone than there are in all of Manitoba, including Winnipeg, as of Sept. 16.