GRAND FORKS — The National Hockey League held a playoff game in Winnipeg Sunday night, May 23, and nobody came. COVID-19 kept fans away.

Manitoba is reeling from COVID. The province reported six COVID deaths on Friday, May 21, and 476 new cases. These are the province’s “darkest days, Premier Brian Pallister declared. He is equivalent to a state governor in the United States.

For much of the pandemic, Canada has had COVID rates below the United States. This prompted much discussion and some smugness. Were Canadians more likely to follow government health guidelines? Are cultural attitudes different enough in the two countries to protect the one while the other suffered?

These notions were explored in an earlier column, printed here on July 8, 2020. At that time, Manitoba had 325 cases and seven deaths compared to 3,816 cases and 80 deaths in North Dakota, despite a wide difference in population. Manitoba’s population is not quite twice the population in North Dakota.

“Why the disparities?” the column asked. “Any answer would be speculative, but let’s try. First, Canadians seem less aggressively individualistic than Americans, more likely to respect authority and more inclined to build and respect collective institutions. It would be possible to create quite a long list, from universal health care to local credit unions to multi-tiered hockey programs that draw in almost every interested athlete, without the huge cost that American parents face …”

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But these factors didn’t protect Manitobans after all.

At the end of last week, the rate of COVID infections in Manitoba was 482 per 100,000 people, the highest in Canada. Alberta was second at 440 cases per 100,000. Saskatchewan and Ontario, provinces bordering Manitoba, reported infection rates of 222 per 100,000.

These figures are borrowed from the Winnipeg Free Press newspaper’s daily COVID report.

The situation was so dire early last week that Premier Pallister ordered schools closed and banned large gatherings, such as fans at hockey games, even Stanley Cup playoff games.

The crisis arose in part because Canada doesn’t have an in-country source of vaccines, and so found itself dependent on world markets for inoculations — and the goodwill of its neighbors. The Free Press reported on Friday that 1,000 Manitoba truck drivers had been vaccinated in North Dakota under a program directed by Gov. Doug Burgum, who made vaccine doses available that weren’t being used in the state. Truckers have been vaccinated at rest stops on interstate highways near Drayton and Oriska, N.D. Vaccinations are also available at highway rest stops near the Saskatchewan border. Truckers are regarded as essential, and they can cross the international border, which has otherwise been closed for more than a year.

Manitoba’s health care system has been overwhelmed, and COVID sufferers have been sent to hospitals in Ontario, which has a lower rate of infection.

Pallister has faced some pushback, just as Burgum did in North Dakota. Resistance to mask mandates, the Free Press reported, was strongest in areas around Winkler and Morden. These Manitoba towns are just north of the international border, near Walhalla and Langdon, N.D.

Canadian cases have an impact on nearby North Dakota. With the border closed, Canadians can’t come south for weekend getaways or seasonal shopping sprees. This has an impact on retail centers such as Grand Forks and Fargo, but the effect may be greater in smaller border towns, which have historically welcomed Canadian revelers. Food and liquor prices are lower on this side of the border. Recreational areas just south of the border are often filled with Canadian revelers — and some are short of camping sites this year because Canadian travel trailers have been stranded in U.S. campgrounds.

There’s an impact on Americans seeking recreation, too. Americans can’t go fishing in Manitoba, for example — a frustration for Americans but a financial loss for operators of Canadian resorts and fly-in fishing destinations.

And there’s no end in sight. Canada Premier Justin Trudeau has hinted that the border may remain closed through this year – suggesting that travel could be disrupted until the spring of 2022. Canada did relent a bit, allowing Americans who own recreational property on Minnesota’s Northwest Angle to travel through Manitoba to reach it, providing they don’t stop en route.

COVID did not diminish the drama of Sunday’s hockey game, despite the nearly empty arena. The hometown Winnipeg Jets trailed the Edmonton Oilers 4-1 with 8.19 minutes remaining in regulation. The Jets staged an amazing comeback, scoring three goals in three minutes and three seconds to tie the game.

The Jets won in overtime and now lead the Oilers three games to none in the seven-game playoff series.

Last year, the NHL season was suspended as the pandemic began and as uncertainty gripped the world.

This year?

Hockey, it turns out, isn't stopping for COVID, even as Manitoba reels from the pandemic's latest surge.

Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Grand Forks Herald.