As economies around the world begin to reopen, something else is occurring simultaneously: the number of cases of COVID-19 is skyrocketing.
The tally around the globe surpassed seven million this week – up from around a million a couple of months ago. But under pressure to stanch the damage the virus has done to jobs and businesses, governments are removing many of the restrictions originally put in place to stop the spread of the disease.
And the results have been predictable.
India is seeing a surge, as is Mexico and several countries in South America, too. Closer to home, the Associated Press reports that the number of cases has risen in 21 U.S. states. A month after reopening, Florida reported the most new cases of any seven-day period since the virus arrived in the state. In Texas, hospital admissions recently spiked to their highest total yet.
In Arizona, which reopened its economy on May 15, the hospital system is under an enormous burden because of the rapid escalation of new cases. Particularly troubling is the number of people who have had to be put on ventilators.
We mention this as Ontario and Alberta get ready to move to Phase 2 of their reopening plans; Alberta is moving forward a full week ahead of schedule. Given what we are witnessing around the globe, it seems to be a roll of the dice.
While saying the move is “anchored in science and solid data,” Alberta Premier Jason Kenney announced that this phase will see the reopening of public libraries and wellness services such as acupuncture and reflexology. Also allowed to open their doors again are personal-service operations including spas, massage-therapy businesses and nail salons.
Indoor fitness centres can reopen, as well as ice rinks. So can casinos, movie theatres and bingo halls. Perhaps as surprising as anything, the Alberta government is lifting restrictions on the number of people who can gather in bars and restaurants, as well as places of worship. Friends and families can form cohorts of up to 15 people with whom they can interact on a “normal” basis.
“The point wasn’t to indefinitely shut down everything we do in society,” Mr. Kenney said in announcing the new policy.
There is no doubt that many Albertans will cheer the government’s move. The province was in desperate financial shape before the pandemic arrived. The disease magnified the misery many were feeling. Consequently, there is no question that the Premier felt a sense of duty to start returning things to normal, or as normal as you can get in these perilous times.
The question is, has the province gone too far, too fast? Alberta NDP Leader Rachel Notley accused Mr. Kenney of effectively declaring the pandemic over. The Premier did get in some trouble earlier for referring to COVID-19 as a type of flu – a line favoured by U.S. President Donald Trump – something it most definitely is not.
Other populous provinces have not considered anything close to the level of openness that Alberta is preparing for. British Columbia, considered the gold standard in managing the virus, still has orders in place that manage the number of people that can gather under one roof. And B.C. is unlikely to lift these restrictions until a vaccine is available. (As of Friday, Alberta had recorded 7,316 cases of the virus, compared with 2,694 for B.C.)
Alberta has decided to go in a different direction.
As I mentioned, there is a huge risk here, and Mr. Kenney likely knows it. The worst thing that could happen is that Phase 2 sparks a deadly new outbreak of the virus, with new cases threatening to overwhelm the hospital system. That, in turn, would force the Premier to do something no head of government in this country wants to do: start shutting things down again.
It’s tough enough to close and reopen a business once, let alone twice. A second wave of COVID-19 in Alberta that forces businesses to shutter again would come at a huge economic price.
“It would be very surprising if we did not have a resurgence in cases after this reopening,” said Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi. “It’s a calculated risk that the province is taking.”
Alberta could pull it off if people don’t take the reopening as permission to throw caution to the wind. People are still expected to maintain a safe distance from others, and wear face coverings while in enclosed spaces. Many of the rules of pandemic life remain, even if new freedoms are being granted.
For the province’s sake, I hope the gamble pays off. But at the end of the day, it’s the people of Alberta who will have the biggest say in whether or not it does.
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