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Alberta is officially back to being a dine-in province, albeit under strict rules to prevent further spread of the novel coronavirus.

Monday was the beginning of the province’s new four-stage plan to reduce economic restrictions tied to COVID-19.

In Edmonton, an extreme cold warning didn’t stop many locals from grabbing a bite with colleagues, family and friends at area restaurants.

Zaidi (Zee) Sohail, owner of 10 different locations of Remedy Cafe, said each site received up to 20 calls from people confirming whether dine-in services are back on the menu.

“We’re expecting a lot of people,” Sohail said as a steady pace of customers walked in the Whyte Avenue cafe for takeout and multiple couples sat at distanced tables separated by dividers.

A block away at the Sugarbowl, almost every table was occupied during the lunch hour. Customer Kevin O’Reilly said he was happy to grab food and a drink with a colleague because the lockdown was getting “very unpleasant.”

“I’m willing to risk just a little bit for my own ability to get out and have a meal and a beer and socialize somewhat, at least at a distance with other people,” O’Reilly said.

While some restaurants chose to reopen for dining service, others such as Northern Chicken, owned by Andrew Cowan, decided to continue only with takeout.

“We put our staff’s safety first because, on a busy day, a person up front might talk to 200 people a day and that’s a big risk for them,” Cowan said.

Sports and entertainment-related activities were also able to resume in schools starting Monday, and youth can take part in lessons and practices for team-based minor sports and athletics, although games are still prohibited.

The four-stage reopening, announced recently by Premier Jason Kenney, is tied mainly to hospitalization rates. Stage 1 is moving ahead because there are fewer than 600 Albertans in hospital with COVID-19.

There is a minimum three-week lag between stages to fully assess the effect on case rates. Both Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, and Kenney have said if the reopening must be paused or rolled back, it will be.

Critics, including the Edmonton Zone Medical Staff Association, want the staged reopening shelved, given the uncertainty of new COVID-19 variant strains making the rounds.

A small fraction of cases are variants, but health officials warn they are far more contagious and can spread exponentially very quickly, overwhelming hospitals.

On Monday, Hinshaw said 25 new cases of variants had been detected since Friday, bringing the province’s total to 96 – with 46 of them not linked to travel.

Hinshaw also reported 269 news cases of COVID-19. There were 432 people in hospital with the illness, 76 of them in intensive care. There were 6,196 active cases and 1,714 people have died.

The province first introduced restrictions in the spring, then eased them as cases fell during the summer.

A renewed second set of rules were launched in mid-December, as daily case counts were peaking at 1,800 a day and there were more than 800 people in hospital with COVID-19.

Those numbers forced double bunking in intensive care units and the cancellation of non-urgent surgeries. The province began prepping a field hospital on the University of Alberta campus in case the situation worsened.

All indoor gatherings remain banned and outdoor get-togethers are capped at 10.

Retail stores can open at 15 per cent capacity. Entertainment venues such as museums and movie theatres remain closed.

Faith-based services are also capped at 15 per cent of capacity with masking and distancing rules in place.

The GraceLife Church west of Edmonton has been challenging those rules for weeks, holding Sunday services with as many as 300 people.

The church has been publicly defying demands to follow the health rules, saying the COVID-19 pandemic is overblown and is unfairly restricting individual rights and freedoms.

The RCMP announced Monday that GraceLife pastor James Coates was arrested and charged Sunday with violating the Public Health Act. He has been released and is to appear in court March 31.

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