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Alberta Premier Jason Kenney speaks about the Open for Summer Plan and next steps in the COVID-19 vaccine rollout, in Edmonton, June 18, 2021.JASON FRANSON/The Canadian Press

Premier Jason Kenney, at a chipper afternoon press conference with the Edmonton river valley behind him, made it official: Alberta on July 1 will become the first Canadian province to lift nearly all public-health restrictions related to the pandemic.

The government released an aggressive reopening plan last month that hinged on vaccination uptake. The government pledged to ditch restrictions two weeks after 70 per cent of eligible people in Alberta had received at least one shot against the coronavirus. Mr. Kenney said the province had crossed over the key threshold as of Thursday, just in time to open for Canada Day.

“We did it. You did it,” Mr. Kenney said. “On Canada Day, virtually all remaining COVID-19 restrictions will be history.”

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This will make Alberta the first province to end the restrictions that have blanketed the country since March of last year. Gatherings - large and small, public and private, indoor and outdoor - will once again be legal. Retailers, gyms and restaurants can operate at full capacity. Physical distancing will no longer be required. The Premier said Alberta can now manage COVID-19 with vaccines rather than rules.

“How awesome it will be that we open up fully on Canada Day - the day we celebrate the freedoms that we all cherish,” Mr. Kenney said, noting 70.2 per cent of people in Alberta over 12 had received at least one dose of vaccine. Roughly 26 per cent of eligible people have received two doses, he said.

The Premier conceded that the virus will continue to infect and kill people, just as influenza continues to circulate with deadly consequences for a small number of residents. Governments don’t “shut down society” for influenza, and Alberta will now apply that approach to COVID-19, he said.

“We paid the price - the high and bitter price - of protecting lives and our health care system for 16 long months. We now have the way out of this,” he said. “Say yes to the science.”

Physicians around the world are warning the Delta variant, first detected in India, could thwart reopening plans even in places where vaccines are widespread. Three people have died after contracting the Delta variant while in hospital in Alberta. Two were in their 80s - one was fully vaccinated, the other not immunized, according to Alberta Health Services. The third victim was in their late 60s and not immunized. All had “significant comorbidities” and were in hospital prior to infection, AHS said.

Public-health experts in Alberta have criticized the speed of the province’s reopening plan and have warned that the Delta variant should have prompted the government to pause and at least wait until more people had two doses of the vaccines.

Alberta expects a small number of rules will remain in health care facilities such as hospitals and long-term care homes. Some workplaces may be included in these forthcoming recommendations, Mr. Kenney said. He does not expect the government to issue a thick stack of guidelines for businesses. Instead, it is urging employers to encourage measures, such as employees staying home when ill, to help contain the virus.

“We just need to use common sense and exercise personal responsibility,” the Premier said, echoing a strategy the government tried, without success, earlier in the pandemic.

Alberta’s relaxed approach to restrictions pushed the limits of the health care system in the second and third waves of the pandemic. This forced the Premier to reimpose rules as intensive care units cancelled non-urgent surgeries as help expand their capacity.

The New Democratic Party did not denounce the government’s confirmation of reopening, but argued Mr. Kenney does not deserve credit.

“The Premier repeatedly acted last and least, personally violated public health orders, and spent a year downplaying the severity of COVID-19,” David Shepherd, the NDP’s health critic, said in a statement.

“As we move forward, we need to remain vigilant but I am proud of the people of this province for how they banded together to get through three waves of COVID-19.”

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