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

JASON FRANSON/The Canadian Press

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney has announced a three-stage plan that could see almost all COVID-19 restrictions gone by early July – as long as people continue to get vaccinated.

“We are truly near the end of this thing,” Kenney said Wednesday.

“We’re leaving the darkest days of the pandemic behind and stepping into the warm light of summer.”

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The restrictions are based on more Albertans getting vaccinated and the number of patients in hospital with COVID-19 continuing to decline. A two-week lag is built in between stages to ensure the vaccines have time to take effect.

Kenney said a full reopening could begin as early as June 28, when 70 per cent of Albertans aged 12 and over are expected to have received their first shot of vaccine.

There would be no restrictions on indoor or outdoor social gatherings, and domestic and international visitors will be welcomed.

Kenney said Alberta could even be on track to host signature summer festivals such as the algary Stampede.

“I’d love to be in the griddle-rental business in Calgary today,” said Kenney. “There’s going to be some pretty good business, I think.”

Opposition NDP Leader Rachel Notley questioned the speed of the restriction rollbacks, calling them far more aggressive than comparable provinces and demanding Kenney show the data to support them.

Notley accused Kenney of moving recklessly to prematurely bask in the reflected glow of post-pandemic good times in a bid to reverse low popularity numbers and quell a rural United Conservative caucus. Kenney’s rural caucus has challenged both his health measures and, in the case of now-former UCP backbencher Todd Loewen, his leadership.

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“We don’t want this (pandemic restriction regime) to go on forever,” Notley told the house during question period.

“What we do want is to avoid another Round 4 of this premier sprinting us into another wave because his political vulnerability is more important than the vulnerability of our health system.

“This does not look like an evidence-based plan. It looks like the premier is working backward from the Stampede.”

Kenney defended the strategy, saying it has the OK from health officials and builds on a base of more than nine per cent of eligible Albertans receiving the required second dose – the highest such percentage in Canada.

“This is a far more cautious approach than, for example, many U.S. states have taken,” he said.

The first stage begins Friday, effectively reversing health restrictions implemented three weeks ago.

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This stage is tied to a benchmark that has already been reached: 50 per cent of Albertans aged 12 and older getting at least one dose and fewer than 800 COVID-19 patients hospitalized.

There were 548 people in hospital as of Wednesday afternoon.

On Friday, worship services, currently limited to 15 people, will rise to 15 per cent of maximum fire code occupancy.

The rest of the changes begin Tuesday.

Barber shops, hair salons and other personal wellness services, shuttered since early May, can reopen for appointments. Restaurants remain closed to in-person dining, but patio service can resume.

Retailers can allow more customers inside, and outdoor social gatherings can double to 10 from five. Indoor social gatherings remain banned.

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Students from kindergarten to Grade 12 have started resuming in-person classes this week.

The bulk of the remaining restrictions are expected to be lifted as early as June 10, when it’s projected that 60 per cent of those 12 and older would have had at least one vaccine shot and there could be fewer than 500 COVID-19 patients in hospital.

At that time, entertainment venues that have been shuttered for months – including movie theatres, casinos and museums – would be allowed to open at one-third capacity. Restaurants could have diners inside.

There would be no restrictions on youth and adult sports. Public gatherings could have up to 150 people, and grandstands for sports and other events would be open at one-third capacity.

Alberta currently has nearly 11,000 active COVID-19 cases – about half of what it had three weeks ago, when Kenney imposed new rules to tamp down a surge that threatened to overwhelm hospitals and force doctors to triage patients.

There were more than 700 in hospital at that time.

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To date, more than 2.5 million Albertans have received at least one vaccine dose.

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