Good morning. Wendy Cox in Vancouver this morning.
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney was forced to shutter businesses and bring in sweeping new restrictions on Tuesday as the province’s COVID-19 case counts continue to rise, making the province the worst epicentre of virus infections in the country.
Mr. Kenney’s preferred reliance on people’s personal responsibility to wear masks and to limit their social contacts has done nothing to halt the skyrocketing numbers, and on Tuesday, the province announced the closure of restaurants, bars, casinos and personal-service businesses such as hair salons. Delivery and takeout will still be allowed. Retailers and malls will also remain open but will see their capacity lowered to 15 per cent.
Mask will be required for public spaces throughout the province, making Alberta the last province to impose such a requirement. Most Alberta cities already had their own mask rules in place and two weeks ago, the province put in a requirement for workplaces in and around Calgary and Edmonton.
There will be a complete ban on social gatherings, both indoor and outdoor. Businesses will be required to have employees work from home where possible.
Mr. Kenney, who has previously argued that a new round of business closures would be too painful for the province, said the current COVID-19 situation left the government with no other choice. He suggested that the restrictions are in violation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
“Behind every one of these restrictions lie crushed dreams and terrible adversity,” Mr. Kenney said. “Life savings, years of work, hopes and dreams that are suddenly undone due to no fault of brave Albertans who have taken the risk to start businesses and to create jobs, constitutionally protected rights and freedoms that are being suspended and abridged are the consequences of many of these measures.”
But Mr. Kenney also acknowledged: “If stronger action is not taken now, we know that hundreds, potentially thousands, of Albertans will die.”
A powerful second wave has pushed hospitals and intensive-care units to their limits in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba.
Alberta moved nearly two weeks ago, banning all indoor social gatherings and sending older students home to learn online, but the measures weren’t enough.
“If the goal is to bring our numbers down, we will need additional measures to be able to do that,” Chief Medical Officer of Health Deena Hinshaw said Monday.
On Oct. 8, Alberta’s positivity rate was 1.34 per cent, and the province recorded 184 new cases province-wide, Dr. Hinshaw said. On Tuesday, it was 9.41 per cent, with the seven-day average of new cases sitting at 1,785.
“There have been outbreaks in almost every type of group setting: parties, family dinners, sports cohorts, long-term care facilities, schools, hospitals, workplaces and supported-living facilities, just to name a few examples,” she said.
As of Tuesday, 640 Albertans had died from COVID-19, including 250 in a single month.
Meanwhile, other provinces formally extended restrictions this week. In Manitoba, Premier Brian Pallister said that orders on gatherings, retail operations, places of worship and various non-essential services that came into effect more than two weeks ago are working – and must continue.
In extending the restrictions to Jan. 8, he said his province’s case counts were down by 0.4 per cent last week, compared to the previous week, while other provinces increased.
“This is not a victory lap,” Mr. Pallister said Tuesday. “These numbers are not sustainable.”
In Saskatchewan, Dr. Julie Kryzanowski, a senior official with the Saskatchewan Health Authority, said the province’s health-care system won’t be able to cope if the recent growth in COVID-19 cases continues.
In a presentation to more than 100 physicians at a virtual town hall last week, she said Saskatchewan had recorded exponential growth in infections, outbreaks, hospitalizations and deaths.
Tuesday marked the deadliest day of the pandemic yet in Saskatchewan, with six additional deaths. Five people who died were in their 80s and one resident was in their 30s.
Saskatchewan and British Columbia are expected to release their vaccination plans Wednesday.
The Pfizer vaccine, being produced in partnership with Germany’s BioNTech, is in the final stages of review by Health Canada, which is expected to issue a decision this week. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Monday if the approval comes as expected, Canada will receive the first doses next week, and up to 249,000 doses by the end of the month.
On Monday, B.C. also extended its restrictions on gatherings and public events to Jan. 8. British Columbians are to socialize only with their own households, while people who live alone can maintain two close contacts.
Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, said the first doses of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine are likely to be given only to people who can physically be at one of the 14 delivery sites identified by provincial governments for the first arrivals of the vaccine.
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
TEENAGE SCIENCE WIZ: Fort McMurray high schooler Maryam Tsegaye needs just under three minutes to explain the university-level physics concept of quantum tunnelling in a way that fellow teens can digest. This impressive knowledge of a complex field of science helped Ms. Tsegaye became the first Canadian to win the Breakthrough Junior Challenge, which includes a US$250,000 college scholarship, a US$50,000 prize for her science teacher and a new state-of-the-art lab for her school, valued at US$100,000. She beat out more than 5,600 other applicants from 123 other countries. The Grade 12 student, whose parents immigrated from Ethiopia, said she hopes her win inspires other young women of colour.
CROSS-BORDER ALCOHOL SALES: A Conservative backbencher is aiming to open the floodgates on cross-country booze shipments, drafting legislation that offers a workaround to interprovincial trade barriers. MP Dan Albas tabled a private member’s bill Tuesday that would allow Canada Post to offer direct-to-consumer sales of out-of-province beer, wine and hard liquor from coast to coast to coast.
KEYSTONE XL: TC Energy Corp. has launched a financing program to support the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline that will allow the company to sell as much as $1-billion worth of shares into the market on a continuing basis. The at-the-market (ATM) share issuance program, the largest Canadian ATM to date, was announced in March and came into effect this week. TC is using the ATM to manage its balance sheet and help fund its US$2.7-billion contribution to the long-delayed pipeline, which would carry crude from Alberta’s oil sands to the U.S. Gulf Coast.
B.C. THRONE SPEECH: In a Throne Speech read in the legislature Monday by B.C. Lieutenant-Governor Janet Austin, the government says it will focus on the economic recovery as quickly as possible. A short session of the legislature is being held before Christmas to allow the NDP to make good on an election promise to provide $1,000 to eligible families and $500 to individuals to help cope with the pandemic. In a news release, the government said the benefit will not come until the end of the year. The Throne Speech says the government will also provide short-term benefits to help businesses. It plans to reward eligible businesses for hiring workers by providing incentives to help people retrain for jobs that are in demand after the pandemic. The government’s climate action goals include building a greener transportation system, the speech says.
ALBERTA CHURCH RESTRICTIONS: Two Alberta churches are suing the provincial government in hopes of overturning its restrictions designed to control the spread of the coronavirus, arguing the rules infringe on constitutional rights and make life unbearable. The Baptist churches and three individuals on Friday filed a lawsuit alleging Alberta implemented restrictions without proving the pandemic is an actual emergency. The court challenge is sweeping, with alleged rights violations ranging from infringements on liberty because of a lack of access to personal care products and entertainment to breaches of equality because students in junior high and high school must study at home until the new year while younger pupils attend classes. The document argues Alberta’s rules create more physical, emotional and economic harm than they prevent. The broad approach – the suit includes challenges based on legislative jurisdiction, the Alberta Bill of Rights and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms – hurts its credibility, said Margot Young, a professor at the Allard School of Law at the University of British Columbia. The Alberta government did not comment on the lawsuit.
RAPID TESTING IN B.C.: Rapid testing kits received from Ottawa are finally being used in a British Columbia pilot project to screen care-home workers for the virus at a time when the province continues to suffer new outbreaks in those facilities. While other provinces have already started using, or are at least testing, the kits distributed by the federal government, B.C. has been slow to adopt the latest innovation which could provide another layer of protection for vulnerable seniors in care homes. To date, the province has received 131 Abbott ID Now machines and 51,000 test cartridges that work with those machines. That test is more sensitive than the Abbott Panbio antigen tests, which do not require a special machine to administer. B.C. has obtained roughly 575,000 of the Panbio tests. Neither are considered as reliable as the conventional tests currently in use, but they can provide results in minutes, rather than waiting a day or more for lab results.
B.C. Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry has been cautious about the rapid tests, arguing they are not as accurate as the lab tests that the province currently relies upon, especially for people who are not showing any symptoms. She stressed Monday that she is not convinced they will prove to be a practical screening tool and declined to say how long the pilot projects will run. However, she acknowledged that the current screening protocols in long-term care homes are not enough to keep the virus at bay.
LONG-TERM CARE TESTING IN ALBERTA: As COVID-19 races through Alberta long-term care homes, one of Canada’s largest private operators, Extendicare, is calling on the province to immediately make weekly testing of staff mandatory. Alberta has seen a rapid rise in outbreaks at long-term care facilities in the past two months. The province now has outbreaks – reported to the public in Alberta when there are two or more cases – at 53 long-term care facilities. Alberta Health Minister Tyler Shandro’s press secretary, Steve Buick, said the minister is open to suggestions, but Alberta’s current practices are based on the advice of Chief Medical Officer of Health Deena Hinshaw. Alberta Health spokesman Tom McMillan said all continuing-care staff who are identified as a close contact of someone with COVID-19 or are symptomatic, are instructed to get tested and to follow return-to-work guidelines.
Andrew Leach on Jason Kenney’s economy strategy: “Mr. Kenney’s vision for Alberta relies not just on higher oil prices, but on growth in production. Boom-time Alberta was not just an oil economy; it was an oil-sands project economy, propelled by thriving industries such as construction, engineering, logistics, service and financing. For that Alberta to return, Mr. Kenney needs people to make massive bets to produce oil here for decades to come. At least for now, they’re not doing that. And that – not pipelines or even oil prices – is the problem.”
Gary Mason on Vancouver’s climate strategy: “Vancouver committed to reducing its CO2 emissions by 50 per cent of its 2007 levels by 2030. So far, it has cut them by 9 per cent. It will need radical solutions to get them to the finish line; incremental reductions won’t get it done. So either city council gets serious about this and moves ahead with a bold climate agenda, or it concedes defeat and lets nature take its course.”