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People line up outside a vaccine clinic as seniors wait to get the COVID-19 vaccine in Edmonton, Alta., on Feb. 26, 2021.JASON FRANSON/The Canadian Press

Alberta is moving to the next phase of its COVID-19 reopening plan, but a recent increase in infections prompted the government to delay some of the most significant changes that were expected as part of that decision.

Libraries will be permitted to open at 15-per-cent capacity and some low-intensity fitness classes will be permitted to resume, but otherwise the government is holding off on relaxing rules for retailers, hotels, banquet halls, conference centres and children’s fitness activities.

Premier Jason Kenney celebrated the province’s success in bringing down infections and dramatically reducing the number of people in hospital with COVID-19, with 257 people in hospital as of Monday, down from about 950 in late December.

But he said the province must proceed with caution because of rising infection rates and the concerns about more contagious variants of the virus.

“We cannot and we must not allow exponential growth to start to take hold, driven by these new more contagious variants, as we’ve seen in many countries around the world,” he said on Monday.

“We must take a balanced approach.”

Mr. Kenney’s government has long been skeptical of lockdowns and business closings as a response to COVID-19, arguing that the unintended consequences can be worse than the disease itself. The Premier boasted last year that Alberta had some of the least stringent pandemic measures, and in the fall the government resisted calls to impose strict measures until infections skyrocketed to levels not seen in any other place in Canada and began to overwhelm the health care system.

The province ordered restaurants, bars, gyms and other businesses to close, restricted retailers to 15-per-cent capacity, and banned all social gatherings in December.

In the new year, Mr. Kenney announced a phased-in approach to reopening that relies heavily on hospital admission numbers, with a three-week waiting period after restrictions are eased before additional changes can be made. The threshold for Step 2 was 450 people in hospital, well above the current level, though the government is also considering other factors such as the rate of transmission.

Infections and hospital admissions dropped beginning in late December, at one point giving Alberta the lowest infection rate outside Atlantic Canada and the territories. In early February, the government announced Step 1 of its reopening, allowing bars and restaurants to open for dine-in service; salons to take clients by appointment; and personal trainers to conduct one-on-one sessions. Small outdoor gatherings were also permitted.

In the weeks since those changes, infections, which had been declining for two months, levelled off and have started to increase, particularly in rural areas in northern and central Alberta.

The province added 291 new cases on Monday and there were 257 people in hospital, including 48 in intensive care. There were two new deaths.

Alberta has confirmed 457 cases of the variants, mostly the one first identified in Britain – the highest per-capita rate in the country.

Mr. Kenney said the variants are a significant concern, but he also said predictions that the variants would quickly become dominant in the province proved to be wrong.

“I think in part through super aggressive contact tracing, we’ve been able to pretty successfully contain those more contagious variants,” he said.

Last week, a group representing doctors in the Edmonton region issued a public letter urging the province not to move into Step 2 and instead reimpose some restrictions, such as closing restaurants and bars. The letter, from two doctors who are co-chairs of the Edmonton Zone Medical Staff Association’s pandemic committee, said the “short window” to prevent a third wave is closing.

“The health care system and the population, after having been stressed for so long, really can’t tolerate another surge before the end of our vaccination campaign,” Noel Gibney and James Talbot wrote.

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