WINNIPEG — Manitoba's COVID-19 numbers were once the envy of most other provinces, but there have been several outbreaks in recent weeks, and the government is having to alter its six-figure ad campaign.
The campaign, once focused on economic recovery, is becoming more about health precautions.
At one point in July, Manitoba had flattened its infection curve so much that there was only one known active case. That stood in sharp contrast to every other province west of New Brunswick.
Winnipeg offered to be the site for a shortened Canadian Football League season (which never went ahead) and the government launched advertisements on billboards, social media and elsewhere with the message: "Ready. Safe. Grow."
The ads, with an estimated budget of $425,000 this year, directed people to a website that contained some health information, but focused largely on what businesses could do to land new contracts and get access to support programs.
The landscape changed as COVID-19 clusters broke out in Winnipeg, Brandon, and a few Hutterite colonies. By Friday, Manitoba was up to 418 active cases.
While some physical billboards have yet to change, electronic ones in recent days have been swapped out to feature a new "Know The Facts" slogan, along with pictures of recently adopted colour codes — red, orange, yellow and green — to denote different levels of restrictions that can be imposed if case numbers rise.
Most of the province is under the yellow code, with a few restrictions. But the Prairie Mountain health region was recently bumped to orange status, which has stricter limits on public gatherings and requires masks to be worn in public places. Some billboards in the region now bear a large orange symbol and the word "restricted."
The ads continue to point to the government's web page about economic programs, but the page starts with an explanation of the colour codes and restrictions in place.
When the campaign first began, the Opposition New Democrats said it ignored health concerns and was a premature taxpayer-funded victory lap for Premier Brian Pallister's Progressive Conservative government. Even the revamped one is using dollars that could be better spent elsewhere, the NDP has suggested.
"The premier doesn't get it. Spending ... money on billboards does nothing to make schools safe, protect workers or help businesses stay open," NDP legislature member Mark Wasyliw said in a written statement Friday.
The government says the billboards serve an important purpose and are adaptable to changing circumstances.
"The campaign has been designed to be flexible. Digital billboards, social media advertising and other elements of the campaign will be able to adapt as the situation in the province evolves," Blake Robert, the government's media relations director, wrote in an email.
"With the change to the restricted level in Prairie Mountain health region, for example, digital billboards and online advertising has been changed to highlight the pandemic response system."
The ad campaign also includes radio advertisements featuring the voice of chief public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin. The ads remind people to take precautions such as washing hands and maintaining two metres distance from others.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 30, 2020
Steve Lambert, The Canadian Press