By Steve Lambert, The Canadian Press
WINNIPEG — The Manitoba government is eyeing new powers and stiffer penalties to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic and other public health crises.
It’s also preparing to spend a lot more money.
The government introduced several bills Wednesday during a one-day emergency sitting of the legislature attended by one-third of politicians — a measure adopted to follow social-distancing guidelines.
“Our province, our nation, our planet face an unprecedented series of challenges,” Premier Brian Pallister said near the outset of the day’s proceedings.
“Until a cure is found and an effective vaccine is created, each of us — all of us — have a responsibility to prevent the spread of this virus and the harm caused by it.”
One bill proposes giving Manitoba’s chief public health officer new powers to prohibit people from travelling to, from or within a given area. He would also have the authority to lay out specific orders, such as self-isolation, for people who arrive in Manitoba from elsewhere.
Another bill would allow the province to prohibit price-gouging during emergencies and set fixed prices for necessary goods and services. It would also raise the maximum penalty for ignoring an evacuation order to $500,000 from $50,000.
That bill would also temporarily give the Progressive Conservative cabinet broad powers for the next year to make emergency orders to prevent serious harm to persons or property or to reduce “the effects of fiscal or economic disruption.”
Pallister said the government needs the ability to react quickly.
“We’ve got an unprecedented situation that requires us to take actions that … are different from past practices.”
Other bills are aimed at providing relief to people affected by the economic fallout from COVID-19.
One would enact an earlier government promise to freeze rents during the pandemic and forbid landlords from evicting people for non-payment. Another would offer workers job protection if they have to take a temporary leave from work due to COVID-19 restrictions.
The Opposition New Democrats indicated support for some of the bills, but expressed concern about the broad powers given to the cabinet.
The NDP also urged the government to offer direct financial assistance to people who have lost jobs or whose hours have been reduced.
“There is a broad economic consensus that governments have a special role to keep the economy moving during times of crisis,” NDP Leader Wab Kinew said.
Pallister had earlier said the province was preparing for a $5-billion hit this year due to the COVID-19 outbreak — a combination of higher health-care costs and reduced tax revenues from a slumping economy.
The Tory government tabled financial estimates Wednesday that forecast $1 billion in extra spending directly linked to the pandemic, half of which is tabbed for health care.
Provincial health officials reported a fifth death from COVID-19 on Wednesday, a woman in her 60s, and two additional cases, bringing the total to 246.
While Manitoba’s numbers remain low, chief public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin urged people not to relax precautionary measures such as social distancing.
“We caution Manitobans to not interpret these case numbers to mean our risk is reduced at this time,” Roussin said.