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Saskatoon mayor, city council to ask province to limit gathering sizes in city

Saskatoon -

Saskatoon's mayor, on behalf of city council, will ask Premier Scott Moe and Heath Minister Paul Merriman to limit gathering sizes in the Saskatoon area to help turn back the fourth wave of COVID-19.

In a letter, Mayor Charlie Clark will propose a series of measures, including limiting private gatherings, even in households, to no more than 15 people.

"We have one of the worst COVID situations in the country in Saskatoon," Clark said during a special council meeting.

"I want to know that we're doing everything we can to try and crush this curve."

Speaking during the meeting Wednesday morning, the city's top doctor said a limit on gathering sizes in the Saskatoon area would help "prevent acute care system collapse."

Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA) medical health officer Dr. Jasmine Hasselback said the COVID-19 surge in the city has left health-care workers "strained, stretched and really struggling to support our most vulnerable."

The Saskatoon area is the province's COVID-19 hotspot, with more than 1,167 active cases as of Tuesday's provincial update.

Hasselback said the number of new coronavirus outbreaks in the city is likely underreported because — with resources stretched so thin — there is no longer the capacity to detect them.

The special meeting was scheduled so City Council could discuss whether to call on the premier and health minister to introduce limits on gathering sizes in the Saskatoon area to help fight the spread of COVID-19.

Hasselback said she and other medical health officers support the proposal.

While answering councillor's questions, she said households in particular are a "huge transmission location" and pointed to the success of similar measures earlier in the pandemic.

She said as "restrictions in mobility became more stringent" the growth in new cases slowed.

The meeting was called after city administration asked Mayor Charlie Clark to write a letter on behalf of council to ask for a limit of 15 people at private gatherings in Saskatoon, including household gatherings.

The recommendation received unanimous support from councillors.

Administration recommended a limit of 150 people at bingo halls, event centres, theatres, casinos, art galleries, libraries and recreational facilities or one-third of current capacity, whichever is less.

SHA respirologist and pandemic chief of staff Dr. Mark Fenton also spoke during the virtual meeting.

He said a clear framework is needed to control the spread of COVID-19.

"Our population has proven we need rules and not encouragements to control the spread of COVID-19," Fenton said.

"Because this is an exponentially growing problem. The longer we wait (it will be) exponentially worse in terms of its impact on the system," Fenton said.

Under the proposal, the 150-person limit would be in place for public and private indoor gatherings and public outdoor gatherings.

Fenton said "it's safe to expect" a continued rise in COVID-19-related hospitalizations in the coming weeks.

"The recent changes in terms of introducing mandatory masking in the province and so on, I think it's going to have a positive impact, but it's not by itself enough to truly control this," Fenton said.

Event facilities requiring proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test result no more than 72 hours old would be exempted from the rules.

"(City) administration determined that the gathering restriction measures are necessary to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in Saskatoon," administration says in a report prepared in advance of the meeting.

City administration came to the conclusion after consulting with Hasselback and "important stakeholders and partners," the report says.

During the meeting, City Manager Jeff Jorgenson said the proposed framework could help shield Saskatoon's economy from the pandemics fourth wave.

"Our thinking … in addition to all the health considerations, how can we keep the economy going. How can we keep business running in Saskatoon. So our hope is that this framework really provides business with the clarity, the predictability and and citizens with (the) same," Jorgenson said.

"If (patrons) have that safe environment to go to, if they know a concert is safe or a restaurant is safe, they actually are going to be more likely to use that venue."

A localized approach to public health measures is not without precedent in Saskatchewan, with the province moving to ban private gatherings in Regina earlier this year as the city battled a variant-fuelled COVID-19 surge.

The letter will also ask that the province-wide masking mandate remain in place instead of being lifted in October as Premier Scott Moe indicated when announcing the measure.

During a virtual news conference held Wednesday afternoon, health minister Paul Merriman said once Clark's letter is received, the government will review the recommendations and respond.

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