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People skate in Bowness Park a day before the province looks at relaxing regulations in regards to the COVID-19 lockdown in Calgary, on Feb. 28, 2021.Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

Alberta could move into the next phase of its COVID-19 reopening plan as soon as Monday, even as infections increase and concerns about more-contagious variants grow.

The province has outlined a phased-in approach to relaxing strict measures imposed in December, when Alberta’s infection and hospital-admission rates were the worst in the country. The government is relying heavily on hospital numbers, which have been steadily declining for the past two months, to guide those decisions.

Stage 1 began in early February, when restaurants were permitted to open for dine-in service with some limits; salons were able to take customers by appointment; personal trainers could resume sessions; and small outdoor gatherings were permitted. A cabinet committee is expected to decide on Monday whether to press ahead with the second stage, which could include relaxed rules for gyms, retailers, hotels, banquet halls, and conference and community centres.

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The announcement is expected as new infections have been increasing over the past two weeks. Hospital admissions continue to decline, but these numbers can lag behind new infections.

Health Minister Tyler Shandro said during a live question-and-answer session on Facebook last Thursday that the government is likely to move forward this week.

He highlighted those low hospital-admission numbers again during a news conference the following day while arguing that the current situation is manageable. He noted that the province has well below the 450 admissions that the government identified as a requirement for Stage 2 and said he considers the current rate of transmission to be low.

“During each of these steps, the activities that have restrictions eased will still have restrictions on them – that’s an important thing to remember,” he said on Friday. “We do have variants of concern in the province and we do have some community transmission, but we are fully testing every positive case for the variants.”

The weekly average of new infections was 356 as of Saturday – about 12 per cent higher than a week earlier. The most significant growth is in the Edmonton region and in the province’s northern health care zone, with new infections in each area increasing by 26 per cent over the past week. There were 250 COVID-19 patients in hospital across the province on Saturday, including 46 in intensive-care.

Mr. Shandro’s press secretary referred questions about those infection increases to Alberta Health, whose spokesman, Tom McMillan, said in a statement that the province would look at a variety of factors when considering changes to public-health measures.

Alberta also has the highest per capita rates of the more-contagious variants than other provinces, primarily the variant first identified in Britain, though the province is testing at a higher rate than other jurisdictions.

Health officials in Alberta haven’t said precisely what percentage of positive cases involve the variants. The province has 430 cases of the variants.

Some medical experts have warned against further reopening, including James Talbot, the co-chair of the Edmonton Zone Medical Staff Association’s pandemic committee.

Dr. Talbot said the changes in early February were risky, particularly in restaurants where there have been examples of crowded dining rooms where COVID-19 could spread easily.

He said that despite the recent progress, the new variants may mean that infections can’t be kept at a manageable level without strict measures remaining in place.

“Where we are now is above where we were at the peak of the first wave and where we were when the second wave took off,” he said.,

“To do further relaxation, it’s just a terrible gamble.”

The opposition NDP’s health critic, David Shepherd, said that if the government moves into Stage 2, it should release all of the information, including recommendations from the province’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, Deena Hinshaw, that were used to make that decision.

“If they’re going to go forward with this on Monday, they need to show the data, they need to show the numbers,” he said. “They need to be transparent with Albertans.”

John Graham, director of government relations in the Prairies with the Retail Council of Canada, said the industry is looking to see the current 15-per-cent capacity limit increased.

“Partly because it will allow an opportunity to serve customers in areas where there’s demand, but equally important is that it reinforces to consumers that retail stores are safe to shop in,” he said.

Dave Kaiser, president of the Alberta Hotel and Lodging Association, said the industry wants to see rules around dining relaxed. Mr. Kaiser was in a meeting with health officials last week and he doesn’t expect major changes around conferences or business meetings.

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