Manitoba allows deferral of utility payments without penalty in COVID-19 crisis

WINNIPEG — The Manitoba government is letting people affected by the COVID-19 economic fallout avoid late-payment penalties on some utility bills and property taxes, but a labour organization says the measures fall short.

Premier Brian Pallister has announced a six-month period, until Oct. 1, in which people can defer payments to Crown-owned hydroelectric, natural gas and auto insurance agencies without interest or penalties.

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Pallister said he is also working with municipalities so that interest and penalties are not charged for six months on the provincial education property tax and school division fees.

"This program is designed to give relief to those who need it most," Pallister said Friday.

The province is also moving up a promise to remove the sales tax from home and business property insurance. That move will now take effect July 1 instead of next year.

The Manitoba Federation of Labour said the Progressive Conservative government is still refusing to provide direct financial aid to people, whereas provinces such as Alberta and British Columbia have offered one-time cash payments to people affected by the pandemic.

"Manitoba is still the only province that is not offering emergency income supports to workers who have lost their paycheques," federation president Kevin Rebeck said in a written statement.

The Manitoba government also announced funding Friday for 140 new beds at homeless shelters, which will include a repurposed vacant public housing building, to allow for social distancing among shelter users.

The announcements came as COVID-19 numbers continue to climb.

Health officials said a second person had died — a Winnipeg-area man in his 50s with an underlying medical condition — and 15 more people have tested positive for a total of 182. Nine people are currently in hospital, six of whom are intensive care.

"We're seeing our case numbers continually grow, we're seeing severe outcomes, which is distressing to many Manitobans," said chief public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin, who reiterated the importance of having people practise social distancing.

"But again, this is not the time for fear. This is the time for our actions."

Health officials received some good news Friday about a personal care home in Gimli, Man., where nine residents had earlier developed respiratory symptoms and a worker had tested positive for COVID-19. Seven of the residents' tests came back negative, Roussin said, while the other two test results were still pending.

The province has also received a response from the business community to a request for donated medical supplies in anticipation of growing COVID-19 numbers.

Eight companies have donated a total of more than 2,500 ventilator masks, 3,100 surgical and procedure masks, and 9,300 gloves, health officials said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 3, 2020.

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