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Alberta announces staged plan to remove all COVID-19 measures


Kenney and Copping both stated multiple times that the staged approach could be paused if pressures on the health-care system do not ease

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Alberta lifted the Provincial Restrictions Exemption program as of midnight Tuesday as the first step of a three-staged approach to removing all public health measures in the coming months, Premier Jason Kenney announced.

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Kenney said the REP, the vaccine passport system, no longer serves any purpose as Alberta’s vaccination rate has been effectively frozen for weeks. The first stage of the provincial plan will also see gathering limits removed on venues with a capacity of fewer than 500 people. Restrictions on food and beverage sales while seated in an audience will no longer be in effect.

“The Restrictions Exemption Program has served its useful purpose. It’s done its job, it is no longer leading to higher vaccination rates,” said Kenney. “Our approach to COVID must change as the disease changes.”

There will continue to be restrictions on the number of people that can be seated together at entertainment venues, as well as restrictions on how late liquor can be served and how long venues can stay open. Venues with a capacity between 500 and 1,000 people will be limited to admitting 500 people, while those with a capacity above 1,000 will be limited to 50 per cent admissions.

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Mask mandates for students from kindergarten to Grade 12 will no longer be in effect as of this weekend. Kids 12 and younger will no longer have to wear a mask in indoor public spaces beginning next week.

Stage 2 of the provincial plan, scheduled to begin March 1, will see the removal of any remaining restrictions on schools and health screenings prior to youth activities. At that time, limits on social gatherings as well as requirements to work from home and the provincial mask mandate will be removed. Capacity limits will also be removed.

Stage 3 will depend on hospitalization rates dropping and will remove all remaining public health measures, and mandatory isolation requirements will become a recommendation.

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Kenney and Health Minister Jason Copping both stated multiple times that the staged approach could be paused if pressures on the health-care system do not ease.

“It is a condition-based approach, which requires us specifically to look at the numbers of new patients admitted to hospital due to COVID-19 over a sustained period of time,” said Copping.

Kenney said the number of COVID-19 patients entering the hospital on a daily basis has dropped in recent weeks, as has the active number of cases in the community. He said wastewater data has also indicated a decline in the virus’ community presence and that the provincial seven-day rolling average of new cases has come down.

Chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw said that as of Tuesday there were 1,623 people in hospital with COVID-19, including 129 people in intensive care. Both of those numbers are increases from Monday’s count and are higher than on Jan. 27 when Kenney urged patience over the removal of health measures until after pressures on the health-care system eased. The premier said at the time he was hopeful to have restrictions removed by the end of March.

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Numbers provided by Alberta Health Services on Tuesday show intensive-care capacity is currently at 87 per cent. If the province had not created additional surge capacity to deal with COVID-19, capacity would be at 116 per cent.

NDP health critic David Shepherd said Tuesday that Kenney has sped up the removal of restrictions in recent weeks and claimed the premier was catering to protesters who have been calling for the removal of the REP while blocking the international border near Coutts. Shepherd said Kenney has been known to cherry-pick data to support his political moves.

“There will be a time that public health restrictions must end after two years of a global pandemic. I know we’re all very tired of the restrictions that have been put on our daily lives. But the timing of that decision should not be set by individuals illegally blocking access to our border,” said Shepherd. “It should be made when we see clear evidence that it’s safe to move away from those public health restrictions.”

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NDP health critic David Shepherd during a press conference in Edmonton on Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021.
NDP health critic David Shepherd during a press conference in Edmonton on Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021. Photo by David Bloom/Postmedia

Kenney, however, denied that the province’s plan had anything to do with the trucker convoy protests in Coutts and Ottawa, and said his government was following other jurisdictions around the world in removing public health measures.

“Why are U.S. states that have had much harder lockdowns than Alberta over the past few years like California, New Jersey, Connecticut, Delaware and many others, why are they right now lifting all or most measures?” said Kenney. “None of that has to do anything with a few trucks parked at the Coutts border crossing.”

Calgary’s vaccine passport bylaw is directly tied to the REP, so scrapping the provincial program means the local rules will be gone, too. The city’s mask bylaw, however, can stay in place without the province’s mask mandate. A council committee is set to hear a COVID update Wednesday morning, and Mayor Jyoti Gondek said there’s still a lot of information to digest before further decisions are made.

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She and Edmonton Mayor Amarjeet Sohi met with Alberta’s health minister and municipal affairs minister earlier to get a preview of the province’s decisions, but Gondek said she’s still looking for more “meaningful” dialogue and information about the science and data informing the next steps.

Patron Madison enters Side Street Pub and Grill in Kensington. Some COVID restrictions could be dropped in Calgary. Photograph taken on Monday, February 7, 2022.
Patron Madison enters Side Street Pub and Grill in Kensington. Some COVID restrictions could be dropped in Calgary. Photograph taken on Monday, February 7, 2022. Photo by Darren Makowichuk/Postmedia

Kenney said during his Tuesday announcement that in the past, the province “tolerated” municipalities crafting their own bylaws on public health issues but, at this point, if Alberta’s big cities intend to make an “entirely separate municipal public health policy” he sees that as “a serious problem.”

Gondek bristled at the notion that the province had been forced to put up with municipal moves to deal with the pandemic.

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“We are happy to do what we need to do for our citizenry, but it’s a little bit disingenuous to then turn around a couple years later and say we were tolerated. We were, in fact, asked to act,” she said. “We are never looking to have increased power over a ministry that does not belong to us, but we are absolutely interested in making sure that we’re acting in the best interest of public health. I would hope to do that with our provincial partner.”

Meanwhile, Karen Kho, a board member with the Alberta Hospitality Association and co-owner of Lil Empire Burger and Empire Provisions, said the association was happy to see a plan put forward but questioned why the government is choosing to remove the REP before restrictions around operating hours and seating limits.

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“These are the actual restrictions that have had the most harm to our industry over the last two years. The REP was probably the restriction that had the least amount of economic impact on our industry,” said Kho. “Seeing that as the first thing to be removed, it really does feel as if very little has changed in terms of how businesses can operate unencumbered.”

The Calgary Chamber of Commerce issued statement Tuesday night, saying the government’s announcement ignores consumer confidence. President and CEO Deborah Yedlin said businesses could see a decline in revenue if Albertans choose to stay home without restrictions in place.

“We would all like to return to having no restrictions and going back to seeing loved ones and engaging in all the activities we enjoy. But we must only do so only when we have adequate certainty that the probability of infection and illness is very low and that a more severe variant is not on the horizon,” said Yedlin.

Alberta recorded 1,667 new cases of COVID-19 Tuesday from 4,269 PCR tests. There are a recorded 28,265 active infections in the province.

Hinshaw reported 13 additional deaths, bringing the total in the province throughout the pandemic to 3,686.

— With files from Madeline Smith

dshort@postmedia.com

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