According to Shara Vigeant, SVPT Fitness and Athletics was “sanitizing before it was cool.” When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, implementing increased public-health measures wasn’t a daunting task for her or her staff at the Edmonton personal training gym. It was second nature. By her estimation, 10,000 people walked through SVPT’s doors over the past year, resulting in zero known cases of the virus.
While the gym has yet to see an outbreak, Ms. Vigeant said her business has been in limbo since last March. With Alberta’s Stage 2 reopening scheduled for Thursday, at which point gyms will be able to open for solo activities and hold indoor classes with distancing, she said she is “cautiously optimistic” – happy to be able to reopen but still worried she could be forced to close again.
Alberta’s reopening plan, called the Open For Summer Plan, is the most aggressive in the country. Stage 2 loosens restrictions on gatherings and allows many businesses to reopen or operate at increased capacity. Stage 3, which could arrive by July if the province’s one-dose vaccination rate hits 70 per cent, would remove all restrictions outside of long-term care and health care facilities. Other provinces, including Ontario and British Columbia, won’t see full reopenings until the fall, according to plans released by their provincial governments.
Experts say the imminent jump to Stage 3 may happen before the pandemic has truly receded, creating the conditions for a new wave of infection.
Lynora Saxinger, associate professor of infectious diseases in the department of medicine at the University of Alberta, said she’s encouraged the hospital system is less overwhelmed than it was at the peak of the last wave in Alberta but worries reopening will result in a spike in COVID-19 variant cases, including the Delta variant wreaking havoc in Britain.
Dr. Saxinger cited data from Britain that show one dose of a two-dose vaccine only offers around 30-per-cent protection from the Delta strain. She said she is concerned about community transmission, especially among Albertans with one dose.
“It’s something that I think should make people feel a little more cautious when they’re planning their summer activities,” she said. “There’s still some questions.”
Although she believes it’s possible the pandemic will be generally contained this summer, she worries there will be a spike in regional outbreaks that will overwhelm local hospitals, creating localized epidemics.
Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, Deena Hinshaw, said earlier this week that the province is looking at the variant closely, and that it would be important for Albertans to receive their second vaccine doses.
Noel Gibney, co-chair of the Edmonton Zone Medical Staff Association and professor emeritus in the department of critical care medicine at the University of Alberta, said moving to Stage 3 before most of the population has received two doses is “significantly risky,” considering the threat posed by the Delta strain.
The association wrote a letter to Premier Jason Kenney last week calling the Open For Summer Plan “rushed” and saying a declaration of victory over COVID-19 and emerging variants is premature.
They are concerned about Stage 3, which is expected to clear the way for the Calgary Stampede to happen in July. Dr. Gibney said moving the Stampede to the end of August, when he predicts most Albertans will be fully vaccinated, might prevent a superspreader event that could result in high case counts and hospital admissions.
The letter calls for large public events to be cancelled or postponed, changes to vaccine eligibility, mobile vaccine clinics and 24-hour clinics to be placed in areas with low vaccine uptake, and mandatory vaccines for health care workers, among other recommendations.
While there is concern from experts about Stage 3, some businesses may not survive without it.
Cody Cook, manager of the Globe Cinema in Calgary, said he will be unable to open the theatre during Stage 2 because the business relies on events, rentals and festivals that still aren’t permitted under the loosened restrictions.
He said larger theatres can open because they have more resources, whereas if the Globe Cinema has 10 people show up and he has to schedule three people to work, the revenue isn’t worth the trouble.
“I’m trying to be optimistic” about Stage 3, he said. “The art community has been suffering.”
On the other hand, some business owners are concerned about safety impacts of Stage 3 reopening. One of them is Andrew Cowan, owner and managing partner at Northern Chicken, a restaurant in Edmonton.
He said he worries his business will be open at full capacity for a few months and then restrictions will come into effect if cases rise, causing another massive financial disruption. He has already been forced to close twice as a result of COVID-19 exposures among his staff, on top of closing in-person dining during general shutdowns.
“There’s still people getting sick and people dying,” he said. “The staff takes the greatest risk.”
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