Manitoba premier says cheques being sent to seniors to help with COVID-19 costs

WINNIPEG — The Manitoba government plans to mail $200 cheques to seniors across the province, regardless of income level, to help them deal with the financial fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Premier Brian Pallister says the one-time payments are to help seniors pay for grocery deliveries and other services they need.

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"I don't plan on using this for re-election," Pallister said Tuesday.

"It's an important gesture, and I think it's one that most Manitobans would support and share in."

Critics opposed the idea of a universal package not targeted to the needy. The Manitoba Liberals pointed out that, at 65, Pallister himself qualifies for a cheque.

"It is really unfortunate that the programs the premier keeps announcing are ones he is eligible for," Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont said in a news release.

Make Poverty History, a Winnipeg-based poverty-rights group, said it supports help for seniors but feels the government has not offered help to low-income earners under 65.

"We've been calling for an increase in employment and income assistance, which would help anyone of any age who is living in poverty," said the group's chairman, Michael Barkman.

The $200 cheques will be mailed out this month, the government said, as an advance on a refundable tax credit to anyone over 65 who filed 2018 tax returns. The money will not be treated as taxable income and won't result in clawbacks to other seniors benefits.

The aid will cost the government an estimated $45 million.

Pallister didn't answer directly when asked whether his name or signature will appear on the cheques. His office later said they will be signed by the deputy minister of finance.

The Progressive Conservative government has predicted a $5-billion hit to the budget this year because of COVID-19 — a combination of increased health spending and decreased tax revenues from a slowing economy.

In a report last week, the Royal Bank of Canada estimated Manitoba's debt could end up much smaller at $1.5 billion.

Pallister said there are many factors that could raise or lower the amount of red ink.

"I've heard lots of projections, too ... I hope that the lower deficit projection is right."

Manitoba has not been hit as hard as some other provinces by the pandemic, although health officials have stressed it is still early to draw any conclusions.

The province reported one new case Tuesday, continuing a trend of zero or single-digit increases, and bringing the total to date to 282. There was also a seventh death, a man in his 70s with an underlying medical condition.

Chief medical officer Dr. Brent Roussin said there was a small cluster of five cases at a workplace in western Manitoba. He wouldn't name the site, but said it was not a health-care facility.

Roussin also hinted it was not a food-processing facility. He said that would be something he would be likely to disclose, given the outbreaks at meat-packing plants in Alberta.

The five cases are all related, Roussin said, but he was unable to say how the first person caught the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

"I don't know offhand where it was acquired. And certainly the rest of them were contacts of that case."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 5, 2020

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