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Pedestrians walk by a physical distancing sign in Calgary on Dec. 12, 2020.

Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

Alberta is delaying moving into the next phase of its COVID-19 reopening plan as the province attempts to prevent recent increases in infections, hospital admissions and variant cases from spiralling into a third wave.

The province, which banned social gatherings and imposed widespread business closings in December amid a dramatic surge in infections, set benchmarks earlier this year that tied the easing of public-health measures to the number of people in hospital with COVID-19. Since then, the government has allowed small outdoor gatherings and eased restrictions for restaurants, libraries, hotels and other businesses. Alberta is currently in Step 2 of a four-step plan.

The benchmark for moving into Step 3 is having hospital admissions under 300 and decreasing. While there were 280 people in hospital as of Monday, that number has been increasing. Health Minister Tyler Shandro said it wouldn’t make sense to reopen further now only to pull back once hospital admissions return above 300, as expected in the coming days.

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“This is the safe move. It’s the smart move to make for our province right now and it’s absolutely necessary to help us avoid a third wave that would take more lives and once again put more pressure on the hospital system,” Mr. Shandro said Monday.

COVID-19 infections in Alberta decreased sharply after the Christmas holidays, falling to a few hundred a day in February from a high of more than 1,800 in mid-December. But that trend has reversed in recent weeks, with infections increasing by more than a third compared with a week ago and hospitalizations up by more than 10 per cent.

The province has also had a spike in cases of the more contagious variants of COVID-19, primarily the one first discovered in Britain; variants now account for 20 to 25 per cent of new cases.

Three weeks ago, Mr. Shandro announced the move into Step 2 but delayed almost every aspect of that part of their plan, citing increasing infections. The province put in place the full list of Step 2 changes, which included relaxing rules for hotels and banquet halls while increasing the capacity for retail, a week later.

Alberta Health Minister Tyler Shandro says the province won't proceed with further easing of community health restrictions on COVID-19 even though hospitalizations are under the benchmark 300 figure. Shandro says cases and hospitalizations are trending up and it would not be safe to further reopen the economy, which would include allowing indoor gatherings. The Canadian Press

Step 3 would have included extensive changes, including allowing some indoor gatherings, easing restrictions for places of worship, and reopening casinos, horse-racing venues, bingo halls, movie theatres and museums.

Mr. Shandro said even as the province moves further into its reopening plan, the government would be monitoring COVID-19 data and could impose targeted restrictions if needed, for example if a particular activity is identified as driving infections.

Premier Jason Kenney and his United Conservative Party government have been under increasing pressure from businesses, their supporters and even some UCP MLAs to lift COVID-19 restrictions. Two members of Mr. Kenney’s caucus joined an anti-lockdown group.

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Mr. Shandro acknowledged that anger.

“We understand the frustration of not just the business owners but all Albertans and how public-health measures are affecting our activities and affecting our businesses,” he said.

Last week, Mr. Kenney said the province’s infection and hospital numbers looked promising as his government considered Step 3. And three weeks ago, the Premier said experts who warned that the variants would soon become dominant were wrong as he said the province had successfully contained them.

On Monday, the province’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, Deena Hinshaw, suggested the British variant could soon make up the majority of cases in the province.

“What we’ve seen in other countries, that because the variant is more transmissible, it eventually does become the dominant strain where there is spread in the community,” Dr. Hinshaw said. “It’s hard to say when exactly that might happen.”

Public-health experts had been urging the government to delay reopening plans and some have said the province should lock down to prevent a third wave. Earlier in the day, a group of doctors called Go4Zero called for lockdown to bring infections under control.

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The Official Opposition New Democrats also said the government should delay moving into Step 3 and welcomed the decision to put that on hold.

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