Alberta schools, municipalities and businesses are expressing dismay, relief and confusion as they scramble to adapt to the province lifting COVID-19 public health rules with what they say was no consultation and little advance notice.
“In the same way we saw restrictions lifted in the past without any meaningful consultation or a demonstrable data-based plan, here we are again,” Calgary Mayor Jyoti Gondek wrote Wednesday on Twitter.
“It makes no difference whether we push or plead, whether we ask nicely or demand loudly. There is no approach and no stakeholder that can convince this government to collaborate on a pandemic response.”
Later in the day, a council committee voted 10-4 against asking the city to look into developing its own vaccine mandate now that the provincial vaccination passport has been axed.
It was different in Edmonton where council voted unanimously to explore the potential of a city-mandated passport. The city’s masking bylaw also remains in place.
Mayor Amarjeet Sohi said the speed at which the province is lifting restrictions is concerning, especially because there has been a lack of transparency and data from the government to back the timing of its decision.
He said he and Gondek were given notice by the government about the announcement, but no opportunity to provide input.
“Good policy decisions are never made under pressure and they are never made by being forced to take positions based on political considerations,” Sohi said in reference to protesters at the Alberta border pushing for all pandemic rules to be dropped.
“We will make decisions based on what is practically possible and what is in our authority Our goal is to make sure we are taking, or exploring, every step possible to keep Edmontonians safe.”
On Tuesday, Premier Jason Kenney announced a phased plan to eliminate all COVID-19 restrictions. That started with the end of the vaccine passport program hours later at midnight.
He also said mandatory mask rules would be cancelled Monday for children under 12 in all settings and for all students in schools.
The province told school boards they don’t have the power to override the directive.
Trisha Estabrooks, head of Edmonton Public Schools, said school boards don’t have the legal authority to bring in their own masking requirements, because the government has removed a health order that allowed them to do so.
She said Edmonton schools will be telling families that masks are still encouraged.
Jason Schilling, head of the Alberta Teachers’ Association, said the government is making slapdash decisions in a vacuum.
“Consulting those working every day in schools was the bare minimum the government should have done,” he said.
“Why remove the mask mandate so quickly when community spread has not decreased significantly? What will be so different next week from this week?”
The Alberta Hotel and Lodging Association lauded the province’s decision.
“It has been a long, hard, and desperate road for many of our members and we have lost some along the way, but (the) announcement gives our members much-needed hope for the rebuilding of our industry.”
The Alberta Hospitality Association, which represents restaurants and bar owners, said it wanted other restrictions – including early liquor cutoff and bans on live music – removed before the passport program, but those restrictions are to remain until at least March 1.
“They went against all of the stakeholder groups that wrote letters in. They didn’t listen to us at all,” said association president Ernie Tsu.
The Calgary Chamber of Commerce said the move creates confusion and uncertainty in a fragile business environment that hinges on consumers being confident that their health is not at risk.
Opposition NDP Leader Rachel Notley said Kenney based a major COVID-19 policy decision yet again on selective data.
She said it’s frustrating Kenney did not consult with local decision-makers before making his “chaotic announcement.” He has previously spoken both for and against municipalities and school boards exercising discretion on how best to fight the pandemic, she noted.
“Jason Kenney has to pick a lane,” said Notley.
“And he needs to do so with the value of collaborating with major stakeholders and duly elected representatives across our province.”
Notley said Kenney’s decision is being made for political reasons to appease hard-line elements in his party and caucus ahead of a United Conservative Party leadership review April 9 – an accusation Kenney has rejected.
Kenney was also trying, but failed, to appease demonstrators at the Coutts border crossing into the United States who are demanding all pandemic restrictions be dropped, she added.
Kenney said more health restrictions will fall in the coming weeks, as long as COVID-19 does not place renewed intolerable pressure on hospitals.
The Alberta Medical Association said it appreciates that changes will be subject to hospitalizations, but noted that health care is “still under great strain.”
“We would have liked to have seen a less aggressive approach to lowering restrictions.”
– With files from Alanna Smith in Calgary and Fakiha Baig in Edmonton
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