Alberta is closing schools and gyms and may introduce curfews in regions where the coronavirus is most rampant in a compromise designed to protect the health care system without imposing restrictions in areas with lower infection rates.
Premier Jason Kenney said on Thursday that the province will also beef up enforcement measures and consequences for people who ignore tickets issued for rule-breaking. The shift comes about three weeks after Alberta last tightened restrictions, but Mr. Kenney said those rules have proven insufficient to curb the rate of infection.
“With hospitalizations continuing to rise, we’re left with no choice but to take further action,” Mr. Kenney said. “We’ve seen what has happened elsewhere, when hospitals become overwhelmed. We cannot let that happen here.”
Students in Grade 7 and up in the targeted hot spots will shift to online learning on May 3. Fort McMurray, Calgary and Edmonton had already shifted to remote learning, in part because COVID-19 created staff shortages.
Indoor fitness facilities in the hot spots must shutter on Friday, Mr. Kenney said. They were already limited to one-on-one training. The restrictions will last at least 14 days. After that, they will be lifted when a region falls below the hot-spot threshold, the government said.
Alberta’s new restrictions will be limited to areas that have 350 active cases of COVID-19 per 100,000 people if they also have at least 250 active cases. This includes Fort McMurray, Edmonton, Calgary, Airdrie, Red Deer, Grande Prairie, Strathcona County and Lethbridge. However, the minimum active case count means a number of rural communities with the highest per capita rates of COVID-19 are exempt.
Alberta tallied a record 2,048 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday, with 632 COVID-19 patients in hospital. Of those, 151 are in intensive care, matching the second wave’s peak ICU headcount. Alberta has the highest rate of COVID-19 in Canada.
Mr. Kenney has faced opposition for months from within his own United Conservative Party caucus when it comes to restrictions. The dissenting UCP members largely represent rural areas and argue – incorrectly, in some instances – their regions do not have widespread cases of COVID-19 and should not be subject to the same restrictions.
Mr. Kenney said provincewide restrictions would not be appropriate.
“Albertans have said, loud and clear, that this isn’t fair. And we’ve heard them,” he said.
The government also said it will introduce a curfew in places where case rates exceed 1,000 per 100,000 people, and if a municipality or region requests it.
The numbers in four regions are at that level, but only one has more than 250 active cases: the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, which encompasses Fort McMurray. The regional government, which declared a state of local emergency on Sunday, had not requested a curfew, but Indigenous leaders in the area have.
Albertans who receive fines for breaking the rules but refuse to pay will face further punishment, Mr. Kenney said. For example, violators with outstanding fines may not be able to renew their driver’s licence.
The capacity limit of 15 per cent for places of worship will not change. A handful of churches defied those rules, including the GraceLife Church near Edmonton, whose pastor was jailed for more than a month.
Mr. Kenney said Alberta can expand its hospital system to accommodate 2,200 COVID-19 patients. But staffing, he conceded, will be difficult.
“Ultimately, the challenge in the health care system is on the workforce side because we can’t just write a cheque to suddenly bring in hundreds of anesthesiologists or respiratory therapists and ICU nurses,” he said.
Roughly 27.6 per cent of Albertans have received at least one dose of vaccine to guard against COVID-19, according to Alberta Health Services.
Earlier in the day, Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi painted a dire picture of the situation in his city, which has a higher number of ICU admissions than during the peak of the second wave.
Mr. Nenshi encouraged Calgarians to not only follow the rules, but go further by staying home as much as possible and shopping for essential items only. He said the public shouldn’t wait for the provincial government to “do the right thing.”
“I’m not here to say to the province, ‘Put us in a full lockdown’ or do other restrictions; I am here to say that what we’ve got in place right now doesn’t seem to be working,” he said.
We have a weekly Western Canada newsletter written by our B.C. and Alberta bureau chiefs, providing a comprehensive package of the news you need to know about the region and its place in the issues facing Canada. Sign up today.