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Alberta Premier Jason Kenney updates media on measures taken to help with COVID-19 in Edmonton on Friday, March 20, 2020.

JASON FRANSON/The Canadian Press

Alberta is implementing widespread business closings, restrictions on work and social gatherings, and a mask mandate for all indoor public spaces after largely voluntary measures proved ineffective in controlling coronavirus transmission in the province.

The announcement Tuesday is a dramatic shift in direction for the province, which has resisted aggressive pandemic measures even as it faces infection rates that are by far the highest in the country. A sudden spike in COVID-19 infections is already overwhelming hospitals and intensive care units, and thousands of surgeries have had to be cancelled or postponed.

Alberta is making its move as other provinces extend restrictions to effectively prohibit large holiday dinners and New Year’s celebrations.

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Effective immediately, Alberta is prohibiting all indoor and outdoor social gatherings, public and private. Close contacts are limited to household members only, and masks will be required for all indoor public spaces provincewide, with the exception of farm operations.

As of Sunday (Dec. 13), restaurants, bars, pubs and lounges will be closed to in-person service. Casinos, bingo halls, bowling alleys, fitness centres, indoor rinks and arenas, libraries and personal service establishments such as salons and barber shops will also be closed.

Retail businesses, including shopping malls, and places of worship are permitted to remain open at 15 per cent of fire code occupancy. As well, all Albertans will be required to work from home unless an employer determines that work requires the employee to be physically present.

Premier Jason Kenney has claimed that such restrictions are in violation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, though legal experts have rejected that argument.

“Behind every one of these restrictions lie crushed dreams and terrible adversity,” Mr. Kenney said. “Life savings, years of work, hopes and dreams that are suddenly undone due to no fault of brave Albertans who have taken the risk to start businesses and to create jobs, constitutionally protected rights and freedoms that are being suspended and abridged are the consequences of many of these measures.”

Mr. Kenney said his government would also increase the province’s Small and Medium Enterprise Relaunch Grant to $20,000, from $5,000, while lowering eligibility threshold to 30 per cent of revenues lost, from 40 per cent, and making it retroactive to March. He did not announce supports for people who have lost employment.

Chief Medical Officer of Health Deena Hinshaw said more than 72,000 Albertans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, including more than 20,000 who are currently infected.

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“If you gathered everyone who has been diagnosed with COVID-19 together, it would be the fifth-largest city in Alberta,” she said.

On Oct. 8, Alberta’s positivity rate was 1.34 per cent and the province recorded 184 new cases provincewide, Dr. Hinshaw said. On Tuesday, it was 9.41 per cent, with the seven-day average of new cases sitting at 1,785.

“There have been outbreaks in almost every type of group setting: parties, family dinners, sports cohorts, long-term care facilities, schools, hospitals, workplaces and supported living facilities, just to name a few examples,” she said.

As of Tuesday, 640 Albertans had died from COVID-19, including 250 in a single month.

Meanwhile, other provinces formally extended restrictions this week. In Manitoba, Premier Brian Pallister said that orders on gatherings, retail operations, places of worship and various non-essential services that came into effect more than two weeks ago are working – and must continue.

In extending the restrictions to Jan. 8, he said his province’s case counts were down by 0.4 per cent last week, compared with the previous week, while other provinces increased.

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“This is not a victory lap,” Mr. Pallister said Tuesday. “These numbers are not sustainable. We need to do more. But Manitobans need to know that what they’ve done has helped. It has made a difference. It has saved lives. It has helped our hospital system not to be crowded and overrun.”

Manitobans are prohibited from inviting into their private residences anyone who does not normally live there, with some exceptions, such as for health care or parenting reasons. People who live alone are permitted to invite in one person with whom they regularly interact.

Retailers that are permitted to stay open for in-person shopping can only sell essential items, but Chief Provincial Public Health Officer Brent Roussin announced Tuesday that the province will be granting seasonal exemptions to allow for some holiday purchases, such as decorations and religious items. Drive-in events, thrift stores and food banks will also be permitted to operate with safety precautions.

On Monday, B.C. also extended its restrictions on gatherings and public events to Jan. 8. British Columbians are to socialize only with their own households, while people who live alone can maintain two close contacts.

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.

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