Manitoba premier says rent freeze will help people hurt financially by COVID-19

WINNIPEG — The Manitoba government announced a rent freeze and a suspension of non-urgent eviction hearings Tuesday to help people cope with the economic fallout of COVID-19.

Premier Brian Pallister said any rent hikes slated for April 1 and after are temporarily off the table so that people who have lost their jobs or who have reduced income due to health issues can more easily make ends meet.

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"These measures announced today will help to reduce the financial uncertainty and stress for many Manitobans," Pallister said. "For them, this is just one less worry to carry."

Non-urgent eviction hearings for things such as unpaid rent are postponed until at least May 31. Urgent issues such as illegal tenant activity will continue to be heard.

The Opposition New Democrats have called on the province to go further and offer financial aid so that tenants can defer rent payments for up to six months.

Pallister said his plan is fair to both renters and landlords. He also said renters who have lost their jobs can draw on federal Employment Insurance.

"It is providing significant support to people at a time of need," he said.

The province also announced Tuesday that it is temporarily suspending non-essential, routine diagnostic tests to protect health-care workers and patients from the spread of COVID-19.

"This includes laboratory blood tests, diagnostic imaging and cardiac services," Lanette Siragusa, the province's chief nursing officer said.

Affected patients will be contacted, she added.

"Urgent diagnostic testing ... of course will continue with appropriate screening and cautions in place."

Health officials revealed one new probable case of COVID-19, bringing the total of confirmed and presumptive cases in the province to 21.

The latest case is that of a Winnipeg man in his 40s. There was no immediate information on whether he had travelled.

And while half of COVID-19 cases across the country have come from community transmission, all the confirmed cases in Manitoba have been travel-related.

Dr. Brent Roussin, chief public health officer, said that is bound to change in the coming weeks.

The novel coronavirus came to Manitoba later than some other provinces where there has been a sharp rise in community transmission, he noted.

"In the jurisdictions that were first hit with cases — B.C. and Ontario — their first weeks looked exactly like ours," Roussin said.

"We're preparing for community transmission. We were given the benefit of time on this, so we were able to implement many of our social-distancing strategies before that occurred."

The province declared a state of emergency last week. Gatherings are limited to no more than 50 people, but most retail stores remain open. Schools are closed for three weeks.

Those measures may be strengthened depending on what happens in the near future, Roussin said.

More than 4,500 tests for COVID-19 have been done in Manitoba.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 24, 2020

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