Alberta and Saskatchewan on Tuesday announced plans to end their vaccination passport systems and mask mandates, making them the first provinces to reveal when they would scrap those two coronavirus public-health measures that are spurring protests across the country.
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney said his province would eliminate its passport program at midnight on Tuesday, while Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe said his province’s system would be gone on Feb. 14.
Mr. Moe said Saskatchewan’s indoor masking requirement will be dropped at the end of the month, while Mr. Kenney said he will end the mask mandate for children next Monday. Both premiers said the usefulness of their vaccine passport systems has ended and it is time to heal divisions in society over COVID-19 restrictions.
Quebec and Prince Edward Island also announced plans to ease public-health restrictions, although their timelines are not as aggressive as those of Saskatchewan and Alberta. Protests against COVID-19 rules escalated over the weekend, including the on-again-off-again highway blockade near the U.S. border crossing at Coutts, Alta. Mr. Kenney said his policy shift on vaccination passports was unrelated to this pressure, even though the number of COVID-19 patients in the province’s hospitals holds steady.
“The program is no longer serving a useful and compelling purpose,” Mr. Kenney said on Tuesday. “I could not stand in front of Albertans tonight and justify a continuation of a program that has done its job.”
To those who might say he’s being pushed by the truckers blockade in Coutts, Mr. Kenney pointed to other jurisdictions in Europe and the United States that are lifting health restrictions.
“None of that has to do anything with a few trucks parked at the Coutts border crossing.”
Alberta recorded 1,623 people with COVID-19 in hospital as of Feb. 7, compared to 1,570 on Jan. 27, when Mr. Kenney said the government would back off restrictions when hospital admissions were on a sustained downward trend.
The province will lift its mask mandate for children under 12, and masking requirement for kids of any age in schools, effective Feb. 14. Adriana LaGrange, the Education Minister, revoked the power of school boards to institute their own masking rules, a reversal from last fall, when the government said local authorities were best positioned to decide. The remaining indoor masking requirements in Alberta will wrap up at the end of the month.
In Saskatchewan, Premier Scott Moe said he knew the vaccination passport system would create “deep divisions,” and that while the program was helpful during the Delta wave, the benefits no longer outweigh the costs when it comes to the Omicron strain.
“It is time for us also to heal the divisions in our communities over vaccinations,” Mr. Moe said. He asked residents not to judge each other over vaccination status or turn on those who wear masks after that requirement expires at the end of February.
“Don’t lose a friend to COVID,” he said.
Mr. Moe said people from across the province influenced his government’s policy shift, but not specifically the convoys of protesters. He said his MLAs listened to constituents and their changing attitudes. “Ultimately, you blend that with the science that we have.”
David Taras, a communications professor at Calgary’s Mount Royal University, said he doesn’t expect significant political consequences for the Moe or Kenney governments over easing health restrictions. He doesn’t believe people will view it as caving to the truckers, because the public is growing increasingly weary of COVID-19 mandates.
“They’re not looking weak,” Prof. Taras said. “I think the public exhaustion is now working in favour of the government.”
That doesn’t mean governments will not someday have bring back pandemic health mandates, he added. But right now, “people feel that it’s time. It’s time for something.”
Quebec, meanwhile, produced a plan to lift most of its COVID-19 rules by the middle of March, although the schedule excluded changes to its proof-of-immunization and face covering requirements. Prince Edward Island also unveiled a multistep plan to ease restrictions, with its vaccine requirements and mask rules stretching until at least April.
Starting on Saturday, private gatherings in Quebec will no longer have any legal restrictions, and other measures will be removed gradually, including a reopening of bars on Feb. 28 and full houses allowed in the largest hockey arenas as of March 14.
Quebec Premier François Legault echoed Mr. Moe in calling on people to use their judgment about what is safe.
“We’ll have to learn how live with the virus,” he said at a news conference in Quebec City. “What does that mean? It means that each person will have to evaluate their own risks. ‘I’m with how many people? How many have three doses? How many are over 60?’”
But Health Minister Christian Dubé said the province’s vaccination passport system is staying, and interim public health director Luc Boileau said indoor mask wearing will remain mandatory in public spaces until at least March 14.
Ontario’s independent COVID-19 Science Advisory Table released new modelling that warned even if the number of people with boosters rises to 10 million in the province by month’s end, hospitals could still be swamped with 2,000 to 4,000 COVID-19 patients, with hundreds in intensive-care, through March.
Ontario has not announced any changes to its gradual reopening plan. The next stage is on Feb. 21, when the limit on indoor private gatherings will be raised to 25, and capacity limits on restaurants and gyms are to be lifted. Large venues will be allowed to operate at half capacity. By March 14, the government said most other restrictions, except for mask rules and the proof-of-vaccination system, would be lifted. The province allowed restaurants to reopen and relaxed other rules on Jan. 31.
British Columbia Premier John Horgan said he will continue to defer to public health experts.
“I believe that masks are effective in protecting people and I don’t believe that an arbitrary decision by an elected official is the best way forward in that regard,” he told reporters on Tuesday. “Similarly, the immunization cards are supported by the vast majority of people to ensure that the sacrifices that they’ve made have provided benefits for them and their families.”
B.C.’s Provincial Health Officer, Bonnie Henry, has suggested changes to B.C.’s restrictions could begin after Family Day on Feb. 21.
With reports from Jeff Gray, Justine Hunter and The Canadian Press
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