The Manitoba government is adopting new emergency 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 and passed 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 new law gives Manitoba’s chief public health officer new powers to prohibit people from travelling to, from or within a given area. He also has new authority to lay out specific orders, such as self-isolation, for people who arrive in Manitoba from elsewhere.
Another new law allows the province to prohibit price-gouging during emergencies and set fixed prices for necessary goods and services. It also raises the maximum penalty for ignoring an evacuation order to $500,000 from $50,000.
That law also temporarily gives 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.”
The Opposition New Democrats supported the legislation, but pushed for amendments to limit cabinet powers. The NDP got the government to agree to a six-month time limit on each emergency order.
Other new laws are aimed at providing relief to people affected by the economic fallout from COVID-19.
One enacts an earlier government promise to freeze rents during the pandemic and forbids landlords from evicting people for non-payment. Another offers workers job protection if they have to take a temporary leave from work due to COVID-19 restrictions.
The NDP urged the government to offer direct financial assistance to people who have lost jobs or whose hours have been reduced. Pallister hinted some form of assistance might come next week.
“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 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.