Alberta is temporarily shutting down in-person classes for students in junior high and high school, limiting the operations of many businesses and banning all indoor gatherings in response to a rapid increase in COVID-19 infections.
Premier Jason Kenney outlined the new measures on Tuesday as his government changes course on how it manages the pandemic in the province, which has among the highest rates of infections in the country. The announcement fell far short of the widespread “circuit breaker” lockdown that doctors and public-health experts had been calling for.
Until now, the province has been largely relying on voluntary measures and appealing to Albertans’ sense of “personal responsibility” to follow public-health advice as the Premier rejected anything resembling a lockdown as more harmful than the virus. The government limited the hours of restaurants and expanded restrictions on private gatherings nearly two weeks ago, but those modest restrictions were unable to reverse the trajectory of the virus.
There were 1,115 new infections announced on Tuesday, more than three times the per-capita rate in Ontario, and 16 additional deaths.
Mr. Kenney said the changes represented a targeted approach designed to do the least amount of damage to people’s livelihoods. He pushed back against the idea of anything resembling a lockdown, which he said is a violation of the public’s rights and should only be used as a last resort.
“Alberta is not involved in a chase after zero, because, in our view, the broader consequences for the health of our society would be intolerable to try to get to zero with a widespread shutdown,” said Mr. Kenney.
The Premier said the government was declaring a public-health emergency, which gives the province added powers to enforce public-health orders. The province made a similar declaration in the spring but that earlier state of emergency ended in June.
Mr. Kenney, speaking for the first time in public since Nov. 12, said in-person classes will be cancelled for grades 7 through 12 as of Nov. 30 and those students will be switched to online learning for the rest of 2020. In-person classes will resume for all students on Jan. 11. Mr. Kenney had previously argued against any school closings. Nunavut is the only other jurisdiction in Canada to shut down schools during the second wave, though there have been examples of individual schools or school districts moving online.
All indoor gatherings are prohibited and outdoor gatherings will be limited to 10 people, effective immediately. He said the province will enforce those rules with fines.
Beginning on Friday, in Calgary, Edmonton and other areas with high infection rates, retail stores in will be limited to 25 per cent of their normal capacity and other businesses such as hair salons will be by appointment only. Restaurants do not have additional capacity rules and continue to have a limit of six people per table, but only people who live in the same household will be permitted to dine together. There’s also an exception for people who live alone, may have two social contacts.
The province is also encouraging anyone who is able to work from home to do so. In areas with high rates of infection, places of worship will be limited to one-third of their normal capacity and people must be masked. Those measures will be re-evaluated after three weeks.
Masks will be required in indoor workplaces in Calgary, Edmonton and surrounding communities. Alberta is currently the only province in Canada without a mask requirement in indoor spaces, though many cities and towns have passed bylaws of their own.
NDP Leader Rachel Notley said Mr. Kenney’s government has mismanaged the pandemic and the measures announced Tuesday will only let COVID-19 cases continue to grow.
“Today, what was needed to see was strong action to stop the spread of COVID-19 in its tracks,” she said. “Instead, once more, we saw half measures.”
The province has been posting record numbers of new infections almost daily, while hospitalizations and intensive care admissions are the highest they have been since the start of the pandemic. More than 100 people have died in the past two weeks.
Mr. Kenney said he believed the province’s approach to the pandemic has been effective and claimed that the province has had the lowest rates among larger provinces until just the past few weeks. In fact, Alberta has often had infection and hospitalization rates higher than provinces such as Ontario and B.C. since the summer.
Many hospitals in the province are operating at or beyond capacity and dealing with outbreaks of their own. The Globe and Mail reported Monday that internal projections from Alberta Health Services predict that the number of intensive care admissions could as much as double in the next two weeks.
There are active outbreaks at more than 70 long-term care facilities and more than 300 schools have either declared outbreaks or are under watch.
Despite that grim picture, the province has been slower to act than some other places in Canada. For example, the Ontario government has put Toronto under a 28-day lockdown as the city reported infection rates that Alberta had two weeks ago.
Mr. Kenney has pointed to the side effects of widespread shutdowns, such as the impact on people’s finances, their mental and physical health, and the increase in opioid deaths.
The province’s contact-tracing system has become so overwhelmed that most infections do not have a confirmed source. The province recently suspended its contact-tracing system for all but the most high-priority cases and on Monday announced that any cases older than 10 days would be abandoned.
With a report from Carrie Tait
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly said restaurant capacity will be limited to 25 per cent. In fact, the 25 per cent cap applies to retail stores, not restaurants.
The Globe and Mail
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.