The Saskatchewan government has declared a state of emergency after reporting that eight new cases of the COVID-19 coronavirus were found in the province. That brings the total number of cases to 16.

The province has laid down strict new rules, including a ban on public gatherings of more than 50 people. Restaurants and bars must keep half of their seats empty or cap the number of customers to 50.

"All must be able to ensure social distance of one to two metres between customers," according to the province.

Grocery stores, pharmacies and gas stations are exempt from that rule, "but must have processes to maintain a one-to-two-metre separation."

All gyms, casinos and bingo halls must close.  

The provincial government also asked all employees who can work from home to do so immediately.

Fifteen of the province's 16 COVID-19 cases are well enough to self-isolate at home, the province said in a news release.

One of the new cases may be an instance of community (non-travel-related) transmission, according to the release.

"We have an instance where the contact investigation has not yet demonstrated a link to travel," the release said.

2 flights flagged

The province again encourages all people returning from anywhere outside Canada to self-isolate for 14 days and flagged two recent international flights in particular: 

  • Sunwing Flight WG540 on March 14, from Cancun to Regina.
  • Sunwing Flight WG496 on March 14, Cabo San Lucas to Regina. 

Anyone who was on one of those flights is asked to actively monitor themselves for symptoms.

Details on 8 new cases

Some demographic information was released on the eight new cases Wednesday. 

The new cases were listed as:

  • A person in their 30s who was tested in Regina.
  • A person their 40s who was tested following close contact with a previously announced presumptive positive case in Saskatchewan.
  • A person in their 20s who was tested in Saskatoon following travel from Tennessee.
  • A person in their 20s who was tested in Saskatoon following travel to Oregon, Nevada and Edmonton.
  • A person in their 40s who was tested in Saskatoon following travel from Vancouver.
  • A person of unknown age who was tested in Moose Jaw after travel from Vancouver.
  • A person of unknown age who was tested in Regina following travel from Cancun, Mexico.
  • A person of unknown age who was tested in Regina following travel from Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.

Stricter social distancing advice

During a previous news conference on Tuesday, Shahab encouraged people to cancel gatherings such as weddings and birthday parties

"My own personal recommendation is that this is not the time to have that big indoor gathering," Shahab said. "Kids home from school, even if you want to have a play-date, maybe one or two people, not 20 people in the basement."

Previously, Shahab ordered that no public gathering of more than 250 people in one room take place.

FSIN calls for liquor store closures

On Tuesday, the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN) called on the province to close all liquor stores, saying alcohol will only encourage gatherings. FSIN voiced its concerns on Twitter. 

"If our province is closing all schools and casinos, it is only logical that this same measure be carried to liquor stores and establishments," the group tweeted at the Scott Moe government.

"Alcohol creates and increases situations of high-risk behaviour and entices groups to gather, which will only contribute to the spread of COVID-19 in the province. This is also a growing problem in the North, with bootleggers ramping up criminal activities."

Cameron said he was concerned about people with addictions still gathering in lounges and playing VLTs. He said that presents an opportunity for the virus to spread while the province is encouraging people to stay home.

Of Saskatchewan's 16 COVID-19 cases so far, two are in the province's north. One of them, a person in their 30s who had travelled to Nigeria and Germany was tested positive in Southend, Sask. — located 600 kilometres northeast of Saskatoon — on March 11.

Shahab has said he's particularly worried about the spread of the virus in the North. 

SaskPower stops collections

SaskPower announced Wednesday that it is halting collections and will stop disconnecting customers who are behind on payments.

"We know the impact of the current pandemic can affect household finances, and that is why we are taking these measures today," said Shawn Schmidt, the Crown corporation's vice-president of distribution and customer services. 

"Flexible payment arrangements will continue to be available to customers during the pandemic. All customers will ultimately be responsible to pay for the power they use."

Special Saskatoon council meeting

Saskatoon city council has called a special COVID-19-themed meeting for Thursday at city hall.

"A report is forthcoming," the city said on its website. "The meeting is expected to be live-streamed."