The provincial government released details of its relaunch strategy Thursday in regards to a plan to re-open some medical services, parks, golf courses and businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic.
It is a phased approach, with the start date of each subsequent phase based on the success of the phase before it.
If COVID-19 hospitalizations remain stable, it will see scheduled surgeries resume May 4 — along with some health services like dental — and restaurants open at half capacity on May 14.
Some of the early steps will begin on May 1, others on May 4. They include:
- Alberta Health Services will resume some scheduled, non-urgent surgeries as soon as May 4.
- Dental and other health-care workers, such as physiotherapists, speech language pathologists, respiratory therapists, audiologists, social workers, occupational therapists, dietitians and more, will be allowed to resume services starting May 4, as long as they are following approved guidelines set by their professional colleges.
Access to provincial parks and public lands will be re-opened using a phased approach, beginning with:
- Vehicle access to parking lots and staging areas in parks and on public lands will be opening on May 1.
- A number of boat launches in provincial parks will be opening on May 1 and working to have them all open by May 14.
- Aiming to make campsites available as soon as possible, with the goal to have as many open as possible by June 1. At this time, sites are open to Albertans only.
- Group and comfort camping will not be offered.
- Campground facility access restrictions to areas such as showers, picnic and cooking shelters will also be posted to albertaparks.ca.
- Alberta Parks’ online reservation system will be available May 14 to book site visits beginning June 1. Out-of-province bookings will not be processed.
- No washrooms or garbage pickup will be available within provincial parks at this time.
- Fire bans in parks, protected areas and the Forest Protection Area remain in place.
- Private and municipal campgrounds and parks can open with physical distancing restrictions, under their own local authority.
- Golf courses can open on May 2, with restrictions including keeping clubhouses and pro shops closed.
“This is our plan, developed on the advice of public health officials for carefully and gradually lifting the restrictions imposed on our economy and on our lives,” Premier Jason Kenney said.
“It feels like a lot more than 56 days since the first presumptive case of the novel coronavirus was reported here in Alberta.”
Kenney said Albertans’ efforts have succeeded so far in containing the virus so that the health system can cope.
“While we continue to see new cases, and expect to as long as the virus is around, we’ve achieved our primary goal of flattening the curve of infections to keep our health-care system from being overwhelmed,” he said.
“I won’t sugarcoat reality. The truth is, we still face the most severe economic conditions since the Great Depression of the 1930s. And it will take heroic effort and determination to get Alberta working and growing again.
“But with today’s launch of Alberta’s relaunch strategy, we can finally begin to shift our focus from the pain and anxiety of the past few weeks, and to start looking with modest hope and cautious confidence towards the future.”
If all requirements are met, Stage 1 could be rolled out by May 14. However, a number of conditions must be met first.
COVID-19 testing capacity in Alberta must be enhanced, contact tracing, “aided by technology,” must be comprehensive and “quickly notify people who may have been exposed.” International border controls and airport screening, especially for international travellers, must be stronger. Alberta must implement rules and guidance for the use of masks in crowded spaces, like public transit. And, strong protections must be maintained for the most vulnerable, including those in long-term care centres.
“There are signs that our collective efforts of physical distancing, good hygiene practices, and staying home when advised are helping to slow the spread,” Dr. Deena Hinshaw said.
“However, we must guard against complacency and be patient to ensure the sacrifices we have already made to contain the virus are not wasted by carelessness as we gradually reopen businesses and services.
“Our fight is far from over.”
If all goes well, Stage 1 would allow some businesses and facilities to start gradually resuming operations as early as May 14, with increased infection prevention and controls. They include the following easements:
- Retail businesses, such as clothing, furniture and bookstores. All vendors at farmers markets will also be able to operate.
- Some personal services like hairstyling and barber shops.
- Museums and art galleries.
- More scheduled surgeries, dental procedures, physiotherapy, chiropractic, optometry and similar services.
- Daycares and out-of-school care with limits on occupancy.
- Summer camps with limits on occupancy. This could include summer school.
- Restaurants, cafes, lounges and pubs (in establishments with licences that allow minors) can reopen for public seating at 50 per cent capacity.
- Some additional outdoor recreation.
- Post-secondary institutions will continue to deliver courses, however how programs are delivered – whether online, in-person, or a blend – will be dependent on what restrictions remain in place at each relaunch phase.
- The use of masks will be strongly recommended in certain specific crowded public spaces, like mass transit, that do not allow for physical distancing (two metres apart).
“For our relaunch strategy to succeed, Albertans must be confident in their ability to go out and visit these services and businesses safely,” Kenney said.
“We’ll all need to be comfortable going into stores and visiting restaurants and workers need to be comfortable going to work.
“So I want Albertans to know that our public health officials are constantly reviewing and improving our public health guidelines to keep us safe as we begin to resume economic and social activities.”
Kenney noted that, unlike some other provinces, Alberta had less strict rules in place.
“Because we did not overreact, only 15 per cent of businesses had to close entirely because of the public health orders, representing about 12 per cent of the workforce and I believe about four per cent of the provincial economy. Now I don’t say these things to minimize in any way the impact on the tens of thousands of Albertans whose livelihoods have been seriously affected.”
Physical distancing requirements of two metres will remain in place through all stages of relaunch and hygiene practices will continue to be required of businesses and individuals, along with instructions for Albertans to stay home when exhibiting symptoms such as cough, fever, shortness of breath, runny nose, or sore throat.
Still not permitted in Stage 1:
- Gatherings of more than 15 people. (Gatherings of 15 people or fewer must follow personal distancing and other public health guidelines.)
- Arts and culture festivals, major sporting events, and concerts, all of which involve close physical contact.
- Movie theatres, theatres, pools, recreation centres, arenas, spas, gyms and nightclubs will remain closed.
- Visitors to patients at health-care facilities will continue to be limited.
- In-school classes for kindergarten to Grade 12 students.
Under Stage 1, non-essential travel, especially travel outside the province, is not recommended. Working remotely is also advised, where possible.
The premier said Albertans are still months away from returning to “our normal lives.”
Kenney said Alberta Health, Alberta Health Services and Dr. Hinshaw had a sound pandemic response plan, quickly implementing an aggressive testing regime and stocking up on supplies.
He admitted a full return to “our normal” won’t take place until there’s a vaccine for COVID-19.
“Until then, we’ll all have to remain vigilant. We’ll have to continue to practise the personal distance and hygiene habits that we’ve all learned to adapt to over the last couple of months.”
The timing of Stage 2 will be determined by the success of Stage 1, the capacity of the health-care system and a continued limiting or reduction in the rate of COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations and ICU cases.
Stage 2 would allow more businesses and services to reopen with two-metre physical distancing requirements and other public health guidelines in place, including:
- Potential kindergarten to Grade 12 schools, with restrictions.
- More scheduled surgeries, including backlog elimination.
- Personal services, such as artificial tanning, esthetics, cosmetic skin and body treatments, manicures, pedicures, waxing, facial treatments, massage and reflexology.
- Permitting of some larger gatherings (number of people to be determined as we learn more about the levels of risk for different activities) in some situations.
- Movie theatres and theatres open with restrictions.
“Visitors to patients at health-care facilities will continue to be limited,” the province said.
Nightclubs, gyms, pools, rec centres and arenas would remain closed under Stage 2.
Arts and culture festivals, concerts, attendance at major sporting events and other mass gatherings would also not be allowed.
The timing of Stage 3 will be determined based on the success of stages 1 and 2 and will involve:
- Fully reopening all businesses and services, with some limited restrictions still in place.
- Permitting larger gatherings (number of people to be determined).
- Permitting arts and culture festivals, concerts and major sporting events with some restrictions.
- Permitting nightclubs, gyms, pools, recreation centres and arenas to reopen with restrictions.
- Resuming industry conferences with restrictions.
- No restrictions on non-essential travel.
“In every phase, there will be an evaluation and monitoring period to determine if we need to adjust restrictions up or down,” Kenney said. “In some cases, we may need to take a step forward, in others, we may have to take a step back.”
In addition to watching infection rates and ICU numbers, the province will monitor outbreaks, which could see certain places have more restrictions.
“There are some in the public who will continue to say, ‘shut everything down until the virus is gone away.’
“Well, here’s the reality: we’re not close to getting a vaccine or a widespread and effective treatment of this disease.
“And we’re nowhere near getting to, as scientists call it, herd immunity… We’re nowhere near those points, and so what we need to do is manage the risk, and that’s what our relaunch strategy is based on.”
The Official Opposition agrees in principle with the relaunch plan but has concerns about starting before testing capacity is higher. Leader Rachel Notley also has major concerns about worker safety and doesn’t think the strategy put enough emphasis on that aspect.
“I know that many people are feeling anxious about the future and they want to return to a state of normal. Albertans want to go back to their jobs, business owners want to reopen… I share those concerns.
“We agree with the premier about the need to take a cautious and careful approach.
“When it comes to testing, the premier said several weeks ago that our ability to perform 20,000 tests a day would be central to his reopening strategy. Today, we are not anywhere near that number; we’re at about a quarter of it. So I hope that we will see more rapid expansion of testing capacity in the days to come. Because right now I have concerns about a lack of testing at essential work sites and that reopening additional businesses will only add pressure.”
Notley also said the government has been too slow to take action to slow infections at long-term care centres, that facilities helping the homeless still need more PPE, and that concerns from workers at JBS and Cargill have fallen on deaf ears.
“The workers at these plants, and many others across the country, simply don’t have a seat at the table, especially here in Alberta.”
“The premier’s plan makes absolutely no mention of keeping the workers safe. The minister of labour is not even part of the cabinet committee overseeing the COVID-19 crisis.”