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Alberta’s chief medical officer of health says COVID-19 numbers continue to fall but the plan is to remain vigilant as the province prepares to fully reopen Thursday.

“Across the board, our numbers are moving in the right direction,” Dr. Deena Hinshaw said Tuesday in her final scheduled news conference, the last of about 240 such briefings over the last 16 months.

“Cases, hospitalizations, ICU admissions and our positivity rate are the lowest they’ve been since last summer, early fall.”

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On Thursday, the Canada Day holiday, Alberta launches the third and final stage of its reopening plan, with nearly all health restrictions lifted, setting the reopening pace for the rest of the nation.

However, Hinshaw said, “COVID-19 is not going away completely. It remains a potentially serious illness that we must keep respecting.”

She said testing will continue for those with symptoms, as will contact tracing and screening for variants.

Hinshaw reported 61 new cases and said the number of active infections – 1,132 – was the lowest in 10 months. There were 170 people in hospital with the illness, 36 of whom were in intensive care.

The reopening means no more caps on indoor and outdoor social gatherings, in restaurants, stores and places of worship. Full-occupancy weddings and other celebrations are back on.

Alberta is also lifting its mask mandate.

Last year, some municipalities instituted their own mask rules when the province waited to impose a provincewide one.

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Most have already been lifted. Edmonton’s mask rule lifts Thursday in lockstep with the province, but Calgary’s will continue until July 5.

There will still be select mask rules: in taxis, ride-hailing vehicles and on public transit. Masks are also still required in acute care and community care facilities.

Some doctors and health specialists have urged caution on removing the mask mandate, given spread of the more contagious Delta variant.

But Premier Jason Kenney and health officials have said it’s time to lift restrictions since almost 72 per cent of the eligible population has received at least one dose of vaccine and more than 38 per cent have received the required two shots.

To boost participation, Alberta on Thursday is holding the first of three $1-million prize draws for those who have been vaccinated.

There are also draws for passes to the Calgary Stampede and travel prizes from airlines. And Kenney on Tuesday announced prize packages from Edmonton and Calgary’s national hockey and football teams.

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Kenney has said he wants Thursday to be the starter’s pistol on getting the province – and Canada – back to a semblance of pre-pandemic normality.

Clinical psychology professor Keith Dobson said it’s been a trying time for everyone during COVID-19, with spikes in anxiety and elevated levels of depression, and it will take time to heal.

“A lot of the loss that people had, whether it’s a loved one or economic opportunity or school opportunity – there’s still a lot of grief and loss associated with it,” said Dobson, with the University of Calgary.

“I’m guessing by roughly October, November, our depression levels in Canada will be what they were pre-pandemic. Maybe a little bit higher.”

He said in the interim, as everyone gets used to socializing again with some people wanting to wear masks, others not, everyone needs to take a deep breath and cut each other some slack.

“We need to be respectful of different people’s positions.”

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Hotel and lodge owners, meanwhile, also expect that it will take longer to return to normal.

Dave Kaiser, president of the Alberta Hotel and Lodging Association, said the concern is that industry and worker financial supports will be tailing off from the government this fall while hotels still wait for business to rev up.

“Our industry has been in survival mode,” said Kaiser, adding the projection for downtown hotel occupancy in Edmonton and Calgary this summer is about 30 per cent.

“Many hotels are still going to be in real trouble.

“We’re hoping some of those liquidity supports can actually be extended into next year until we get borders more fully open and air travel more fully recovered.”

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