After a week of explaining why the province needed to extend public-health restrictions such as a ban on in-person dining, Alberta said it will ease the rules governing pubs, restaurants and gyms by the second week of February.
Premier Jason Kenney said the province’s decisions around loosening restrictions on businesses, events and other activities will be tied to the number of patients with COVID-19 in Alberta’s hospitals. The province is prepared to ease restaurant rules in February because there are now fewer than 600 COVID-19 patients in hospital. If, after three weeks, there are fewer than 450 such patients in hospital, the government will consider rolling back restrictions on banquet halls, conference centres and similar facilities.
The plan is short on details and Mr. Kenney warned that stronger restrictions will be necessary should a more contagious version of the virus take hold in Alberta. However, businesses have been pushing the government to provide clarity on reopening and while the schedule is vague, it offers a glimpse of the province’s ambitions. Mr. Kenney suggested the outline was a matter of keeping everyone on side.
“If we continue to do collectively the right things, bending that curve down further – and further reducing pressure on our hospitals – we can gradually relax public-health restrictions. But this must be done carefully, slowly, and in a way that is driven not by opinions but by data,” Mr. Kenney told reporters Friday.
“We also need to maintain broad public support for, and compliance with, public-health guidelines and restrictions,” he said. “So in trying to strike this balance, it is important that we show Albertans that there is a path forward.”
Restrictions on indoor social gatherings will not be reconsidered until COVID-19 patients in hospital dip below 300, the third benchmark in the four-step plan. At least three weeks must elapse between each phase, Mr. Kenney said.
A handful of restaurants in Alberta, primarily in rural parts of the province, defied the government’s ban on in-person dining this week. The Mossleigh Bar N Grill, for example, opened its dining room to customers Tuesday, before Alberta Health Services and RCMP arrived at 5:15 p.m. to shut it down, according to owner Cassie Rowse. She said she did it to rattle cages.
“I feel like rural [Alberta] is being so overlooked,” she said before government announced plans to relax the rules. “In a small area like this, we can definitely open and do it safely.”
The first phase of the plan kicks in Feb. 8 and primarily affects restaurants and gyms. Eateries will not have capacity limits, but only six people can dine together and must be from the same household, or designated close contacts for people living alone. Restaurants, cafés and pubs will have to collect contact information from at least one person at the table. Liquor service will end at 10 p.m. and in-person dining will shutter an hour later. Entertainment such as live music, pool tables and VLTs are not allowed.
Indoor fitness facilities will also be allowed to reopen, but training is limited to one-on-one scheduled sessions, among other restrictions.
When COVID-19 patients in hospital dip below 450, the government will consider further easing restrictions on retail, hotels and gyms. The rules governing libraries, places of worship and adult team sports will be re-examined when COVID-19 patients in hospital hit 300; and the final phase will be triggered when there are fewer than 150 COVID-19 patients in acute care.
When that happens, Alberta will consider easing restrictions for indoor concerts, weddings, tradeshows, amusement parks and other activities. This is when Alberta will look at lifting work-from-home restrictions, according to the schedule.
Alberta counted 543 new cases of COVID-19 Friday, with 594 infected people in hospital. Across the province, roughly 7,800 people have COVID-19 right now.
Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, said there are 37 people infected with COVID-19 variants in the province, up 12 from her past update. Of those, 31 have been infected with the variant tied to Britain, and six with the South African version. All but three have been linked to international travel, and two of those three are related to the first non-travel variant case the government announced earlier this week.
These variants are more contagious and should they escape into the community, the government may have to throw out its four-point reopening plan.
“That is a downside risk,” Mr. Kenney said, noting that vaccines offer upside potential.
The British variant, known as B.1.1.7, quickly consumed health care resources in its country of origin. Given this, Kirsten Fiest, an epidemiologist and professor at the University of Calgary, earlier this week said it would be unwise for Alberta to relax the rules.
“If we were to ease restrictions and it got a toehold in the community, it would very, very quickly spread,” she said. “Now is not the time.”
With reports from Kelly Cryderman
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