Hello. It’s James Keller in Calgary.
Alberta’s COVID-19 infections have been sharply increasing for weeks, giving the province some of the highest infection and hospitalization rates in the country.
And yet, the province has taken a lighter approach when it comes to pandemic restrictions than other jurisdictions in Canada and has also been slower to impose new measures even as infections have increased rapidly in recent weeks. The province has broken near-daily records for new infections and hospitalizations as the number of active cases in the province doubled in the past three weeks.
Until now, the Alberta government has been largely relying on voluntary measures and appealing to what Premier Jason Kenney has described as Albertans’ sense of “personal responsibility” to follow voluntary public-health advice. He has also rejected the possibility of a lockdown or widespread business closures as more harmful than the pandemic itself.
But the province made a significant change in course yesterday, announcing a series of measures from school closures to bans on social gatherings that the government hopes will bend the curve of COVID-19 back down to a manageable level. The Premier also declared a public-health emergency for the second time this year. A similar declaration was made in the spring but that ended in June.
Mr. Kenney said it was a difficult decision to restrict the activities of people and businesses, but he said the current trajectory is putting too great a strain on the health-care system and threatens to interfere with care that Albertans need. And that, he said, will lead to more deaths.
The new measures include:
— In-person classes will be cancelled for Grades 7 through 12 as of Nov. 30 and those students will be switched to online learning for the rest of 2020. The winter break for all students will be extended until Jan. 11, when all students, including those in older grades, will return.
— All indoor gatherings are prohibited and outdoor gatherings will be limited to 10 people. Tickets come with fines of $1,000 and courts have the ability to impose much higher penalties.
— In Calgary, Edmonton and other areas with high rates of infection, restaurants and retail stores will be limited to 25 per cent of their normal capacity and other businesses such as hair salons will be by appointment only. Only people who live in the same household will be permitted to dine together, except for people who live alone, who may have two social contacts.
— In areas with high rates of infection, places of worship will be limited to one-third of their normal capacity and people must be masked.
— The province is also encouraging anyone who is able to work from home to do so.
Aside from the school closures, the rest of the rules will be in place for three weeks, at which point the government will decide whether they need to continue.
Mr. Kenney said the changes represented a targeted approach designed to do the least amount of damage to people’s livelihoods. He pushed back against the idea of anything resembling a lockdown, which he said is a violation of the public’s rights and should only be used as a last resort.
“Alberta is not involved in a chase after zero, because, in our view, the broader consequences for the health of our society would be intolerable to try to get to zero with a widespread shutdown,” said Mr. Kenney, who declared a public-health emergency.
The announcement fell far short of the widespread “circuit breaker” lockdown that doctors and public-health experts had been calling for.
Gary Mason writes that Mr. Kenney’s response has been incredibly slow compared with the sharp rise in infections that have set Alberta apart from other provinces: “When the history of the country’s response to COVID-19 is written, there will surely be a chapter devoted to the Alberta government’s bewildering and, in many ways, grossly negligent response to handling the crisis.”
British Columbia, too, is grappling with explosive numbers, tallying over 900 cases in each of the past two days. Last Tuesday’s case count of 731 seemed impossibly high then.
As a result, Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry has ordered all indoor physical activity spaces to suspend operations.
The discrepancies over how different sectors are treated have prompted public complaints. Arts reporter Marsha Lederman spoke to British Columbia theatre groups upset that they were forced to shut down last Thursday but movie theatres were not. By Tuesday, movie theatres too were ordered shuttered.
At a news conference on Monday, Dr. Henry and Health Minister Adrian Dix called on British Columbians to stick to the spirit of the new orders rather than focus on apparent contradictions.
“If we’re going to think about injustice, think about the injustice of the people that we lost this weekend, think about the people in long-term care living with outbreaks right now and all the people working with them and the families involved because that is injustice, but it’s not an injustice we can fight by getting angry,” Mr. Dix said.
Also Tuesday, the union representing British Columbia teachers made a direct appeal to parents, calling on them to support a “culture” of wearing masks as it continues to push for a mandatory mask policy in schools. Teri Mooring, the head of the BC Teachers’ Federation, said in an open letter to parents that the union is looking for help in implementing and following mask-wearing protocols.
The federation has repeatedly called on provincial health officials to make masks mandatory in schools. Currently, masks must be worn by students in high-traffic areas in the senior grades, but they are not required in class.
This is the weekly Western Canada newsletter written by B.C. Editor Wendy Cox and Alberta Bureau Chief James Keller. If you’re reading this on the web, or it was forwarded to you from someone else, you can sign up for it and all Globe newsletters here. This is a new project and we’ll be experimenting as we go, so let us know what you think.
AROUND THE WEST
COVID-19 IN MANITOBA: Since the coronavirus pandemic was declared last March, funeral homes and burial services companies in Manitoba have worked under some of the strictest public-health orders in the country. Now, all indoor social gatherings are capped at five, meaning funerals can have only four people plus an officiant – not even enough for pallbearers. “That’s the single biggest challenge, balancing public protection against families’ need to come together and grieve and say goodbye,” said Kevin Sweryd, president of the Manitoba Funeral Service Association and funeral director at Bardal Funeral Home. “But if Walmart and the liquor store can have people walking in and out, and Tim Hortons has people walking in and out to pick up coffee all day, how can this not be allowed?”
Funerals have been linked to COVID-19 outbreaks across Canada, including in Clearwater River Dene Nation in Saskatchewan and at a Hutterite colony in Alberta this summer. In Newfoundland and Labrador, nearly 150 cases of the virus were linked to two funerals held in St. John’s in mid-March.
COVID-19 IN SASKATCHEWAN: NDP Leader Ryan Meili wrote in a letter to the premier Tuesday that more people are falling ill and ending up in hospital because the Saskatchewan Party government’s approach isn’t working. Health officials on Tuesday reported 175 new daily cases of COVID-19. Some 105 people were in hospital, 20 of them in intensive care. The seven-day average of daily cases in the province stood at 209. Meili said he wants Moe to assemble a group with the NDP, health and education officials, and representatives from business, labour and Indigenous communities. The group would come up with a co-ordinated approach to get the virus’s spread under control and to share important information and advice. In a statement, Moe said public-health officials are already listening to the groups Meili listed in his letter for input on virus-prevention guidelines.
B.C.’S HOT SPOT: Businesses and residents alike have reason to be on edge in the Fraser Health region as the COVID-19 cases rise. The high numbers of essential workers in “high-risk” businesses, multigenerational households and social gatherings in homes may all be contributing to Surrey and the surrounding region’s dubious distinction of being B.C.’s hot spot. The Fraser Health region, which stretches into the Fraser Valley from the cities east of Vancouver, including Surrey, has the highest case counts in any of B.C.’s five other health care regions, with daily counts frequently two times or more higher than those in the Vancouver region.
Fraser Health looks after more people than any of British Columbia’s other health regions, covering a vast territory about three times the size of Prince Edward Island and including 20 communities such as Surrey and Burnaby. It includes 12 acute-care hospitals and covers 1.8 million people. By comparison, Vancouver Coastal Health serves 1.25 million people including residents of Richmond and Vancouver as well as communities stretching north to Bella Coola. As provincial officials Thursday announced sweeping new restrictions, including mandatory mask-wearing, they also released new case count numbers that highlight the challenges facing Fraser Health. Of 538 new cases, 309 were in Fraser Health compared to 178 in the Vancouver Coastal Health region. On Friday, the numbers were 516 in B.C. overall. Of those, 294 were in Fraser Health and 148 in Vancouver Coastal Health. Seventeen were in the Vancouver Island health region, 31 in Interior Health, and 25 in the Northern Health region.
ALBERTA FISCAL UPDATE: Before he tabled the province’s latest fiscal update in Edmonton on Tuesday, Finance Minister Travis Toews said global economic uncertainty will strain Alberta’s coffers for years to come, even as the projected deficit for 2020-21 dropped to $21.3-billion from the $24.2-billion forecast in August. “We’re doing all we can to position the province for recovery, but I can’t say definitively that our toughest days are behind us,” he said. If the pandemic’s effects on Alberta’s finances continue into the 2021-22 financial year, as Mr. Toews expects, the province has built a $750-million contingency buffer into its deficit for that year to cover any unanticipated costs of the contagion.
Provincial revenues are forecast to increase by nearly $3-billion since the last quarter of this fiscal year, thanks largely to $1.4-billion in additional transfers from Ottawa via the Safe Restart Agreement and other pandemic relief programs. As well, tax revenues, investment income and timber royalties are expected to grow by about $700-million. Alberta’s real GDP is expected to contract by 8.1 per cent in 2020, and government forecasters say it will not return to 2019 levels until early 2023. Total provincial expenses are forecast at $62.7-billion, $5.4-billion higher than estimated in Budget 2020.
ANDREW WILKINSON STEPS DOWN: BC Liberal Leader Andrew Wilkinson is making way for an interim leader, abandoning his previous commitment to serve until a permanent successor was picked. Mr. Wilkinson, who has not taken media questions since the Oct. 24 election that saw the Liberals lose 13 seats, announced his plan Saturday in a Facebook posting. “I welcome the selection of an interim leader from our caucus and will fully support her or him as our caucus prepares to act as the Official Opposition once again,” Mr. Wilkinson wrote.
DEBATE OVER DEFUNDING: Kaycee Madu, Alberta’s Justice Minister, and the governing United Conservative Party are steadfast in their opposition to the movement to reduce funding for the police in favour of spending more money on social programs. Mr. Madu said in an interview he has directed his department to look for “options” he can use if municipal governments defy his demands police budgets remain intact. Calgary City Council will deliberate over its budget this week, including $40-million in cuts and diversions from the previously approved police budgets for 2020 and 2021. Edmonton plans to redirect $11-million previously earmarked for policing to other programs that could reduce the burden on officers.
MONEY LAUNDERING: B.C.’s Attorney-General says neither Ottawa nor the RCMP have added new officers to the federal police agency’s drive to fight money laundering on Canada’s West Coast, despite a pledge to do so last year. David Eby told The Globe and Mail late last week that no new RCMP resources have been added on this front in the past year and a half, even after former Mountie Peter German found a skeleton crew of five people working these cases in British Columbia and – instead of recommending criminal charges to the Crown – simply forwarding files to the provincial Civil Forfeiture Office.
Dawn Roberts, head of communications for the Mounties in British Columbia, said Monday that she could not provide current staffing data as Mounties were still collecting this information for the Cullen Commission, which is hearing from various witnesses about how billions of dollars have been laundered through a handful of sectors in the provincial economy in recent years. She said, in an e-mailed statement, that Dr. German’s 2019 assertion that just five officers were working on these cases in B.C. was a “snapshot in time, on that morning” and “not a true portrayal of the full team.” The RCMP now has more than 30 members in B.C. working for a “financial integrity” unit that tackles money laundering and other commercial and market enforcement crimes, her statement said.
André Picard on Alberta’s new COVID-19 restrictions: " In response to the soaring number of COVID-19 cases in the province, Premier Jason Kenney declared a ‘state of public health emergency’ on Tuesday. He started out with a little muscle flex, saying “no indoor social gatherings will be permitted, period.” Outdoor gatherings will be limited to 10 people. But then we learned that restaurants will be open for in-person dining, bars will remain open, and so will casinos, gyms, stores, primary schools (Grades 7-12 are going to remote learning). Heck you would be hard-pressed to find anything that will be closed.”
Alexandra Gill on Vancouver’s Cioppino’s Mediterranean Grill: “I now feel compelled to write about it, not just because excellent cooking deserves recognition, but because over the past decade, Cioppino’s has been quietly reinventing itself and the COVID-19 pandemic has amplified those changes persuasively.”
Ted Kouri and Trevor Tombe on Alberta’s fiscal challenges: “While the COVID-19 pandemic will certainly make things worse, the core of our fiscal challenge predates this crisis and results from choices made by successive Alberta governments over the course of decades. That fiscal challenge boils down to this: Alberta spends more per capita than other provinces, all while taxing significantly less.”