In Our Words: Border split rears its head again on health orders

As of last weekend, Saskatchewan has lifted almost every public health restriction it has put in place to fight COVID-19. Provided COVID-19 rates keep going down and vaccine numbers keep going up, that’s great for Creighton. It’s great for Denare Beach. It’s great for everyone and I hope it works.

It’s also going to suck for most of Flin Flon because unfortunately, Manitoba isn’t planning to do that for a while yet – possibly almost another two months. Manitoba’s current plan is to lift all restrictions by Labour Day weekend.

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Starting this week, there are two very different sets of rules in place for what is essentially one larger community.

Let’s compare and contrast what’s in place in Manitoba right now, versus what’s going to be in place in Saskatchewan as of July 11. Manitoba will still mandate masks in all public places and gatherings. Saskatchewan won’t be, though people and places can still have their own rules in place.

In Manitoba, gatherings are only allowed at private residences if there’s fewer than 10 people. In the latest round of restriction changes, which went into effect June 26, the province even specified that visitors were now allowed to “briefly enter the home for essential reasons” - I guess before that, people who needed to use the bathroom just had to do it on the lawn or something.

In Saskatchewan, you can have 100 people in your house for a party if you feel so inclined, packed like sardines.

Manitoba still is restricting outdoor public gatherings to 25 people or less. Now in Saskatchewan, you can have the entire town over for backyard Pilseners.

Restaurant dining in Manitoba still has tight restrictions - quarter capacity inside, half capacity outside, indoor diners can only be from the same household unless they’ve had both shots, outdoor tables are limited to eight people.

In Saskatchewan, you can have as many people at Weyburn’s KFC buffet as you can stuff through the door.

Gyms in Manitoba can only open at a quarter capacity, with three metres of distance between people at all times. Gyms in Saskatchewan can soon have lines of 20 people waiting to use one squat rack, where one guy has, for some reason and to the chagrin of others, insisted on doing bicep curls.

Manitoba funerals and weddings are currently restricted to 25 people or less outdoors, with 10 people inside. Not in Saskatchewan.

In most circumstances, this would make sense. Saskatchewan has much fewer COVID-19 cases than Manitoba. Their path through the third wave was a lot less severe. Saskatchewan got incredibly lucky.

The two provinces are not in the same boat. The Pas, for instance - which has, as of July 15, the most active COVID-19 cases per capita in the north by a massive margin - is in a much different situation than a place like Swift Current, where almost nobody has COVID-19 at the moment. They aren’t close to each other. Different factors are in play.

Flin Flon, Creighton and Denare Beach are not in that same boat.

So now, Flin Flon, Manitoba is still be under COVID-19 restrictions. Creighton and Denare Beach aren’t – and neither is Flin Flon, Sask.

No accommodations have been made by either provincial government for border communities. While I’m happy for people who live and work on the Saskatchewan side, this will hurt people and business on the Manitoba side, which is just now starting to recover from three intense waves of COVID-19 and related health orders.

If someone wants to go for lunch with their friends, will they choose a Flin Flon restaurant where they have to follow health orders, or will they choose a place in Creighton or Denare Beach where they do not need to? If someone wants to go shopping or go to church or have a party, why wouldn’t they do it in Saskatchewan?

If someone wants to travel into the north, why do it in northern Manitoba right now? Travel into northern Manitoba is still technically restricted, but those restrictions don’t apply to people coming up north for a slew of reasons.

That said, people from Creighton or Denare Beach are restricted from Manitoba. I know of people who have tried to arrange campsites at Bakers Narrows but who have been blocked because they live in Creighton. These people could technically drive all the way across the province and go camping in Estevan or the Battlefords or Maple Creek, but they can’t go camping 20 minutes from their house. How does that make sense?

There are also reports of Creighton and Denare Beach fishers getting tickets for fishing at lakes and creeks minutes from their homes, or other fishers who live on the Sask. side who can’t get a fishing license for lakes 15 minutes away. Why?

When looking at Manitoba and Saskatchewan, you’d figure Saskatchewan must have hit a herd immunity point or have a great vaccination level. You’d be wrong - Manitoba has seen several hundred thousand more vaccine doses than Saskatchewan. The Flin Flon health district has seen 70 per cent of people with at least one dose. Numbers aren’t available for Creighton, but Denare Beach hasn’t even cracked 50 per cent for everyone 12 and up yet.

COVID-19 outbreaks in this area, including ones at major employers at Hudbay, have affected people on both sides of the border. If another outbreak - god forbid - happens because of these changes, both sides of the border are going to feel it.

Two sets of rules for what is essentially one community is bad praxis.

I’ve always been of the mind that public health orders are annoying but necessary. The basic principles are sound - don’t put a lot of people close together, take whatever steps you can take to avoid transmitting the disease and so on.

But now what do we do? How can we take what Manitoba is doing seriously now when five minutes away from home, Saskatchewan has apparently eliminated COVID-19?

What is the correct answer? I don’t know, but what I do know is that we’re about to see some unequal treatment based on an arbitrary line in the dirt.

This column appeared in the July 7 issue of The Reminder, before Saskatchewan's health order changes went into effect. It has been edited to show the change happening in the past tense.

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