By Steve Lambert, The Canadian Press
WINNIPEG — The Manitoba government expanded a wage subsidy program Wednesday as the province’s COVID-19 numbers continued to climb and Premier Brian Pallister urged people to take the pandemic seriously.
“The consequences of our behaviour are real and the last few weeks have provided all of us with a teachable moment — not a happy one,” Pallister said.
“We must respect COVID. It is our adversary. It is merciless. It is persistent.”
Pallister announced that a subsidy for companies that hire new workers or rehire staff during the pandemic will be doubled.
The subsidy, which covers half of a worker’s wages until the end of October to a maximum of $5,000 each, will now be available for up to 20 workers per employer instead of the current 10.
“This program … has been a key component in our economic recovery and it’s going to continue to be,” the premier said.
The announcement came the same day the province announced 25 new COVID-19 cases, bringing the total to 1,043. At one point in mid-July, Manitoba had only one active case. On Wednesday, that number had climbed to 408.
Health officials have said many of the recent cases are tied to clusters in a few Hutterite colonies where communal living is a way of life, as well as clusters in Brandon, the province’s second-largest city.
The province advised of potential public exposures at two Brandon businesses — a gym and a coffee shop — and another cafe further north in Wasagaming. The warnings Wednesday followed other possible exposure advisories in Brandon earlier this week.
Since Monday, the Prairie Mountain health region, which includes Brandon, has been under new rules that tighten limits on public gatherings and require masks in indoor public places.
Part of the Brandon caseload involves workers at the Maple Leaf Foods meat processing plant. Health officials have said there is no evidence the novel coronavirus is spreading inside the plant, and transmission appears to be occurring among workers and others elsewhere in the community.
The United Food and Commercial Workers union said there are problem areas in the plant and it should be temporarily shut down, while it recognizes that Maple Leaf has taken safety measures, such as installing shields at work stations and allowing for greater physical distancing among employees.
“There are certain choke points at the plant where it’s just impossible to social distance,” said Jeff Traeger, president of UFCW Local 832.
“Those would be the stairwells up to the second floor where the change rooms are. The main cafeteria and some of the auxiliary cafeterias are very difficult, and those are particularly worrisome to us because employees are removing their masks in order to eat.”
Health officials said earlier this week that 56 COVID-19 cases were connected to the plant, although chief public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin avoids mentioning a specific company name and refers to it as a “business in Brandon.” Traeger said the union has been told by Maple Leaf Foods the number is 76.
Maple Leaf did not respond to a request for its count on the number of cases, but provided a statement that said it was following all health rules.
“Our plant remains safe to operate and (Manitoba) public health and Canadian Food Inspection Agency officials agree,” spokesperson Janet Riley wrote in an email.