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People file into West Edmonton Mall during the first day of no mask restrictions in Edmonton, Alta. on July 1, 2021.Megan Albu/The Globe and Mail

On a searing hot day, inside the comfort of a temperature-controlled beach, crowds of people frolicked gleefully in the perfect lap of automated waves at the World Waterpark. It was crowded, and the water was an inviting crystalline blue, illuminated by the vast domed skylight overhead. A little girl kicked her way through the bobbing swimmers in an inner tube. A large man with tattoos lounged in the shallow water. Two young women in bikinis walked slowly along the mechanically generated surf, past people lounging on a fake beach, under fake palm trees.

It was July 1, and at the West Edmonton Mall, it was the first day of the way things used to be.

Two weeks earlier, Premier Jason Kenney – who had been promising Albertans “the best summer ever” – stood before Edmonton’s picturesque river valley and proclaimed that the target of a 70-per-cent vaccination rate had been reached in the province, infection and hospitalizations were plummeting, and because of that, on July 1 virtually all remaining health restrictions would be lifted, and “our lives will get back to normal.”

“No more limits on weddings or funerals. No more bans on indoor social gatherings. No more limits for gyms, sports and fitness activities. No more capacity limits at restaurants or retail or places of worship. No more advisories against non-essential travel, so long as you observe travel requirements in other jurisdictions,” the Premier said then.

“Instead, we’ll get back to doing things we all love.

“I know for some of us it’s hard to believe,” he said. “But it’s true.”

As in the rest of the world, it had been more than a year of masks, of limited capacity, of shutdowns and closings. And while Alberta had been more open than much of the country throughout the pandemic, the Open for Summer Plan would mark Canada’s first province to completely remove pandemic restrictions and protocols, including cancelling the masking requirement in nearly all public environments. (It will remain in place for hospitals, care homes and public transit.)

“How awesome it’ll be that we open up fully on Canada Day,” the Premier said.

And while the City of Calgary opted to keep the mask bylaw in place for another review next week, Edmonton’s city councillors voted by a narrow, one-vote margin to remove the city’s mask bylaw at the same time the provincial restrictions were lifted on Thursday.

Late on the evening of Wednesday, at the mall’s popular strip of restaurants formerly known as Bourbon Street (now rebranded BRBNst), Hudsons Canada’s Pub stayed open after the previously allowed 10 p.m. curfew, shutting down liquor service for two hours, then resuming service at midnight to ring in the July 1 removal of the restrictions.

Mike Garrett, a 35-year-old who was among about a dozen men lining the bar at Hudsons, said he hadn’t come out to celebrate the lifting of the restrictions, but because the temperature in his townhouse had risen to 35 C and “you can only have so many cold showers.”

“For me it was a big thing to get vaccinated, I’m a bigger guy and I have diabetes, so I’m technically high risk,” he said, speaking through a plexiglass partition decorated with Canadian flags. A few couples and small groups were scattered at tables and booths elsewhere in the restaurant.

Mr. Garrett said he’s been very cautious during the pandemic but will probably go out more now that he’s fully vaccinated and the restrictions are being lifted, though he admitted it was a lot to go from so many rules to pretty much nothing in – he checked the time on his phone – 13 minutes.

“I think there’s always going to be that worry there,” Mr. Garrett said. “But I try not to think about it too much.”

At 11:59 p.m., a woman’s voice rose above the din of conversation and the blasting Ed Sheeran song to proclaim “Last minute!” and as the clock ticked from Wing Wednesday into $4 Thursday, a slight scattered response ruffled through the room. “Alcohol time!” someone said, in what appeared to be mostly a celebration that you could once again order drinks, and not related to the pandemic at all.

A young man in a ball cap rose from his booth and tossed his mask onto an empty table, then politely retrieved it and went back to his seat.

The servers kept their masks on. Down the bar, a man with a mask around his chin coughed into his hand, and a woman walking out yawned broadly, her mouth bare and open as she passed an employee taking down the restaurant’s plexiglass barriers.

Hours later, people were streaming into the mall well before stores opened, the vast parking lot filling with cars and pickup trucks from around the province and beyond. A woman wearing a mask and blue gloves walked in alongside two unmasked women. A man heading into bingo with a mask on said he wasn’t aware the restrictions were changing, and looked a bit shocked at the news masks were no longer required.

Over at the Santa Maria – the mall’s full-sized replica of Christopher Columbus’s ship – Nishi Nand stood maskless, taking video of the attraction while a waterfall burbled nearby.

“I can breathe freely now,” said Ms. Nand, taking a deep breath. She said she had driven up from Calgary with her boyfriend, after he surprised her with a road trip to visit the mall.

Ms. Nand said she learned about the change in restrictions in an e-mail from her workplace the day before.

“It’s good,” she said, though she added that she still had a mask with her, and in fact had worn it during breakfast at a restaurant that morning.

“I don’t think I would go into a big crowd and I still use my hand sanitizer, but I can breathe again,” said Ms. Nand, whose boyfriend stood masked nearby. “He’s very cautious,” she explained.

Mid-morning, a government press release proclaimed that Alberta had “crushed COVID-19,” and was “officially Open for Summer,” with almost all restrictions lifted. Later, the province announced the first $1-million winner in the vaccine lottery, in which vaccinated people have a chance to win prizes, including cash and rodeo tickets.

As of Thursday, about 73 per cent of Albertans had received one shot, and 42 per cent had two doses. The government says 50 per cent of eligible Albertans are expected to be fully vaccinated by July 6.

At noon, the mall was teeming with people, a nearly even split of those with masks and those without, and others with masks dangling from their ears or chins, hanging off wrists or stroller handles.

Justin Dancey, who works at the mall’s MAC store, said employees were told they could choose whether they wanted to be masked or not, and he had chosen to keep his mask on for the time being, at least until more people are vaccinated and his own second shot takes full effect.

“It makes me feel more comfortable,” said Mr. Dancey, who still wore a bandage on his arm, having received his second vaccination the day before.

The mall had been closed completely as part of the initial lockdown in March, 2020, but has been open since retail was allowed to resume in Alberta last June. Mr. Dancey worked throughout the year, and while he said he got used to people taking off their masks in the mall even when it wasn’t allowed, he’s content to take things slowly.

“As of right now, it looks like a lot of people are still wearing the mask,” he said. “So I guess we’ll just see as time goes on.”

About a year after they were installed, directional arrows on the floor of the mall went unheeded as throngs of people streamed through.

Mandatory mask signs, still hanging in the doorway at many stores, were passed with no regard.

In the cacophony of the Galaxyland amusement park, a family in masks screamed from their car in the Galaxy Orbiter, while in the next car, another family screamed without them. At the ice rink, the masked and maskless circled each other, their skates scratching the ice as they passed.

And everywhere in the bustling mall, people talked and shouted and laughed and sneezed and sniffed and coughed, and if it didn’t feel exactly like the way things used to be, in some places and some moments, it at least came pretty close.

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