Alberta is in a second state of public of health emergency as of Tuesday, after 1,115 new COVID-19 cases were confirmed in the last 24 hours.
New targeted restrictions were also introduced Tuesday based on the recommendations chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw presented to cabinet in an eight-hour session on Monday. The measures will be in effect for three weeks and re-evaluated after that.
“These mandatory measures will place new restrictions on social gatherings, worship services, businesses, schools and all Albertans,” Premier Jason Kenney said, adding the restrictions weren’t determined lightly.
“We believe these are the minimum restrictions needed right now to safeguard our health-care system, while avoiding widespread damage to peoples’ livelihood.”
Social gathering restrictions
The first new restriction is aimed at social gatherings, and prohibits any indoor social gathering in any setting, and outdoor gatherings are limited to 10 people, effective immediately.
“Social gatherings are the biggest problem,” Kenney said. “It is the key reason why COVID-19 is winning. These gatherings in the home continue to be the largest form of transmission.”
People who live alone are allowed to have two “close contacts” who they can socialize with, as long as you are each others’ close contacts.
No more than 10 people can be present at wedding and funeral ceremonies as of Tuesday, and receptions are also off limits.
“For those grieving, I know this is a particular sacrifice,” Kenney said, acknowledging that the emotional nature of both funerals and weddings make them higher risk for transmission of COVID-19.
Festivals and events are also prohibited under the state of public health emergency, and people are encouraged to work from home if possible. Masks were made mandatory in workplaces in the hotspots of Calgary and Edmonton, and their surrounding areas.
Kenney said despite the vast majority of faith communities following the province’s public health guidelines, some groups have flagrantly ignored them, leading to outbreaks.
As a result, attendance at places of worship is being capped at one-third a building’s fire code capacity, while also requiring masks and physical distancing between households.
“We will enforce these rules against indoor social gatherings and those who break these rules will be subject to fines,” Kenney said, adding the government is exploring ways to allow peace officers to deliver those fines.
The fines could range anywhere from $1,000 to $100,000.
Kenney also said an Alberta Emergency Alert will be sent to all Albertans this week to make sure everyone is aware of the restrictions.
“I never imagined… I’d be in a place where I’d be telling people who can come into their house. We just felt like we really had no other options.”
Changes to school structure
How students learn will change, beginning next Monday.
“Rising cases in our workplaces and homes, driven disproportionately by the social gatherings, means that we are seeing rising cases in schools as well,” Kenney said, reiterating there is little evidence of transmission in schools.
Kenney said the cases in schools has put a strain on staffing, negatively impacting the quality of education Alberta’s students are getting.
Schools across the province are also moving to online learning until the new year – with Grades 7 to 12 starting at-home learning as early as Nov. 30.
Kenney said teenagers pose a higher risk of virus transmission, which is why officials are mandating a longer pause from classroom learning for older students.
Students in Kindergarten to Grade 6, and early childhood learning, will begin online learning on Dec. 18. until their winter break begins.
Keeping younger students in schools for longer also offers parents, and daycares, a break when it comes to caring for young children.
All students will be out of the classrooms until Jan. 11, 2021. The decision to extend the winter break is so any students who have been around family during the holidays will have a window to monitor for symptoms before returning to class.
Diploma exams were also made optional for the rest of the school year, meaning students can choose to write them, or be exempt from the April, June and August 2021 examinations.
Restaurant, retail and gym limits
More restrictions are also coming to the hospitality and fitness industries, with restaurants, bars, pubs and coffee shops now only allowed to seat people from the same household, to a maximum of six people.
“Retail businesses and services may remain open, but will be restricted to 25 per cent of occupancy limits,” Kenney said.
The 10 p.m. limit on liquor service and 11 p.m. closure rules announced earlier this month will remain in place.
Health Minister Tyler Shandro said health inspections will be increased to ensure establishments are following the health measures, and those that aren’t complying may be fined.
Businesses like hair salons, personal wellness services and hotels can still operate, but on an appointment-only basis and all patrons and service providers must comply with existing health measures.
As of Friday, banquet halls, conference centres and concert venues will be closed temporarily to any in-person service.
Sport leagues are also impacted, but can apply for exemptions, Kenney said, if they have “well-developed COVID safety plans.”
Kenney said in recent weeks, as many as nine outbreaks have been traced back to amateur sports games.
Gyms and fitness centres can remain open for people exercising individually, operating at 25 per cent capacity.
If Alberta’s COVID-19 numbers don’t improve, the government will look at bringing stricter measures “likely in three weeks’ time.”
Kenney apologized for the government’s “stupid” mistake in the spring with its “arbitrary distinction between essential and non-essential retail businesses.”
“[The distinction] had the unintended consequence of allowing Walmarts and Costcos to sell darn near everything because they have a grocery section or they sell pharmaceuticals, while shutting down thousands and thousands of retail small- and medium-sized businesse.”
“We are putting a capacity limit because we have to do some things to limit general social and community transmission.”
Tuesday’s case numbers
As of Tuesday, Alberta had 13,349 active cases of COVID-19.
Hinshaw said the new case number is lower than recent daily totals, but said “this dip is due to fewer tests,” with about 13,500 tests completed on Monday, compared to more than 19,000 on Sunday. The province’s test positivity rate was 8.3 per cent as of Tuesday.
Alberta’s death toll also rose to 492 on Tuesday, as 16 more people sick with COVID-19 died since Monday.
Three-hundred-forty-eight people were being treated in hospital for COVID-19 Tuesday, with 66 needing ICU care.
The majority of Tuesday’s deaths were in the Edmonton Zone, with six people – a woman in her 70s, two women in their 90s and three men in their 90s – dying after contracting the virus at South Terrace Continuing Care in the Edmonton Zone.
Two men in their 80s died in the last 24 hours, one connected to the outbreak at Capital Care Lynwood in the Edmonton Zone and the other linked to the Royal Alexandra Hospital outbreak.
Two people linked to the outbreak at the Rosealta Lodge in the Central Zone also passed away; a man in his 90s and a woman in her 100s.
The remaining deaths were all in the Edmonton Zone and were not linked to outbreaks, and included two men in their 70s, a woman in her 60s, two men in their 60s and a woman in her 100s.
‘A small package of half-measures’: Opposition calls new restrictions insufficient
The Opposition issued a news release following Kenney’s news conference and called the government’s new COVID-19 restrictions “a small package of half-measures.”
Opposition Leader Rachel Notley said she expected stronger action from the premier.
“Today’s announcement is simply not enough,” she said. “It’s the product of political bargaining inside the UCP and not the product of a serious engagement with public health advice.
“These half-measures will mean prolonging the pandemic, prolonging the suffering, and prolonging the economic pain.”
The NDP said the new measures don’t amount to any “meaningful changes” when it comes to shops, restaurants and bars and noted that for the most part, in the areas where the province is now making masks mandatory, face covering bylaws are already in effect and said Alberta remains the only province in Canada without a province-wide mask policy.
“Today, Jason Kenney had one last chance to make the hard choice,” Notley said. “He failed to do so, and now we all have to live with the consequences.”