Alberta expects to eliminate the vast majority of public-health restrictions by the end of June, making its revised reopening schedule the most aggressive in the country.
Premier Jason Kenney introduced a phased plan Wednesday that culminates in lifting all COVID-19 measures, including a provincewide mask mandate, limits on indoor and outdoor gatherings and constraints on businesses, two weeks after 70 per cent of eligible Albertans receive at least one dose of vaccine. This could happen as early as June 28 based on current bookings, he said.
Mr. Kenney’s strategy clears the way for the Calgary Stampede to proceed in July unencumbered; Alberta’s marquee event had become a central focus as the government developed its reopening measures. The plan will also pacify critics in the Premier’s own party who pushed back against restrictions, even as Alberta’s intensive-care units overflowed and new daily cases skyrocketed.
The prospect of ending all public-health measures would represent a significant turnaround in a province that had by far the highest COVID-19 infection rates in North America just a few weeks ago. Mr. Kenney, whose government has taken a less strict approach to public-health measures than other provinces throughout the pandemic, imposed tightened restrictions three weeks ago and infections have since plummeted.
Saskatchewan, British Columbia and Ontario have all released reopening plans tied to vaccination rates, but those schedules are more cautious. In B.C., full prepandemic activity will not resume until at least Sept. 7. Ontario’s roadmap depends, in part, on a portion of the population receiving a second dose of vaccine. Quebec has also released a plan to gradually lift restrictions over the next month, though the province isn’t tying those changes to vaccination rates.
Mr. Kenney has held up vaccines as the way out of the pandemic, and said no jurisdiction has suffered a COVID-19 resurgence in hospitals after 70 per cent of eligible citizens have received one shot.
“If you don’t like the current restrictions – and who does? – the best thing you can do to end them is to get vaccinated,” Mr. Kenney told reporters. “We’ll stick it to COVID so we can all get our freedoms back fully.”
Experts caution that Alberta’s speedy reopening could spell trouble: The three vaccines in use in Canada are not fully effective until recipients receive two doses; it is not entirely clear how effective vaccines are against more contagious variants; and the inoculation threshold is based on those eligible for shots, which leaves out anyone under 12, rather than the population as a whole.
Kirsten Fiest, an epidemiologist and professor at the University of Calgary’s Cumming School of Medicine, believes Alberta’s roadmap is driven by politics rather than science. The push to reopen before people are fully vaccinated later in the summer could lead to a resurgence, she said.
“It seems to me this is a push to have things fully reopened in time for the Stampede,” she said.
But Mr. Kenney said Albertans have “crushed” the spike in new cases and are “crushing it” at lining up for their shots, giving the province a path forward.
“I don’t think many Albertans will feel this is high speed,” he said.
Roughly 58 per cent of Albertans aged 12 and up have received at least one dose of vaccine as of Tuesday, according to Alberta Health. This translates to roughly 50 per cent of the total population.
There were 548 COVID-19 patients in hospital as of Wednesday, including 157 in intensive care. This means Alberta has already cleared the first reopening threshold of 50 per cent of eligible people vaccinated with one dose at hospital admissions under 800 and dropping. (Hospital admissions did not exceed 800 in the third wave but the health care system struggled to cope because a greater percentage ended up in the ICU).
As of Friday, capacity at worship services increases to 15 per cent of fire code. On June 1, hair salons and similar businesses can reopen by appointment and restaurants can reopen patios to serve parties of four, among other changes.
Then, two weeks after 60 per cent of Albertans 12 and over have one shot and hospital admissions are below 500, Alberta will remove the work-from-home order, permit groups of six to dine together indoors and outdoors, allow public outdoor gatherings of up to 150 individuals, clear grandstands to fill one-third of their seats, resume indoor and outdoor sports for all ages and make other adjustments.
Finally, almost all restrictions will be erased two weeks after 70 per cent of people eligible for a shot receive one dose. Isolation requirements for confirmed cases of COVID-19 and some measures in continuing care facilities will remain.
Opposition NDP Leader Rachel Notley said she was concerned that Alberta’s reopening plan moves more quickly than other provinces and she called on the Premier to release evidence to support it. For example, she said other provincial plans wait three weeks after hitting vaccine thresholds, while Alberta’s plan calls for a two-week wait. Restaurants could open for indoor dining in Alberta nearly a month before they do in Ontario, while in Quebec, large fairs similar to the Stampede won’t be permitted until at least the end of August.
“I have questions about how the Premier decided on this pace and whether it was informed by science, or simply by working backwards from the first day of the Calgary Stampede,” she said.
Shazma Mithani, an emergency department physician in Edmonton, said the Alberta government’s strategy does not provide an incentive for people to get their second dose. Further, the vaccination threshold does not take into account regional disparities, and the average will be buoyed by Calgary and Edmonton.
“That’s just setting the stage for outbreaks in other parts of the province,” she said. “It is confusing why there’s this need to get things back to normal so quickly when opening this aggressively puts us at high risk of prolonging this even more.”
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