Opposition Leader Rachel Notley criticized Premier Jason Kenney on Friday for announcing the lifting of more public health restrictions just days after the health minister said strong public health measures were needed to protect against new COVID-19 variants that have already arrived in Alberta.
At a news conference in Edmonton, Notley told reporters that the “alarming graphs” Health Minister Tyler Shandro showed Albertans on Monday, illustrating how rapidly COVID-19 variants might spread in the province without public health measures in place, make her question why the government has decided to announce the easing of more restrictions.
“(It’s) hard for me to believe that Jason Kenney has made the decision he announced today based on evidence and professional public health advice,” she said. “Rather, it appears to be — as always — a very political decision… (He is) succumbing to those who would break the law rather than enforcing the law.”
Notley referred to a small but growing movement of restaurant owners who have decided to defy public health orders and open their doors for customers looking to dine inside.
On Friday, Kenney said it was regrettable that some Alberta businesses are in a “very deliberate way, thumbing their nose at the law” and said doing so presents a public health risk and is unfair to businesses that do follow the law.
He added that people not following public health orders could potentially help cause “a situation where we end up having to impose more stringent restrictions on everybody if we get back into exponential growth.”
“Small businesses and their employees have definitely suffered greatly during this pandemic, and I know that for many, the decision to lift some restrictions on gyms (and) in-person dining on Feb. 8 will be perceived as good news for their business in the short term,” Notley acknowledged. “And I do sincerely hope that we will see a steady and permanent decline in cases, hospitalizations and deaths… (but) my hope is tempered by our experiences in the past year and experiences we are observing in other jurisdictions.
“We had far lower numbers in the summer and we still saw those escalate quickly into a much more dangerous second wave.”
Kenney announced the province plans to ease public health measures for bars, restaurants, children’s sports activities and indoor fitness centres. He said skyrocketing COVID-19 case numbers in the late fall and early winter had decreased enough to allow for loosening the rules if people continue to be cautious and follow public health recommendations.
Further to that, Kenney said if hospitalization numbers also continue to decline, the government will look at further removal of public health restrictions.
“We know that we are in a race between the vaccine and a very dangerous new COVID-19 variant and possible third wave, and today our premier has given the variant a head start,” Notley said.
As of Friday afternoon, the province had confirmed 31 cases of the variant first identified in the U.K. and six cases of the variant first identified in South Africa.
“Of these 37 cases, all but three are linked to travel,” Alberta’s chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw said Friday. “These three are all from the same household.”
On Monday, Shandro acknowledged that the U.K. variant “may have entered the broader community.”
“Let me be blunt – this, now, is very concerning,” he said at the time, noting the new variants have a “significantly higher infection rate, estimated to be 30 to 50 per cent higher than the strain that we’ve had in Alberta to date.”
“This government has got to stop mismanaging this pandemic,” Notley said Friday. “It is about the public health and safety of all Albertans.”
She called on the premier to release Hinshaw’s recommendations on easing the rules and to ensure pandemic-related decisions were being made “on the basis of science, of safety of public health.”
“That is also the way to protect the economy,” she said.
Craig Jenne, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Calgary, said with new case numbers, the positivity rate and hospitalizations declining, it was time for the province to explore the possibility of further reopening the economy. However, he said he is troubled by the recent arrival of new COVID-19 variants in Alberta.
“My concerns lie in that we do know we have these more transmissible variants in the province now, and unfortunately, in today’s announcement, we did learn that the number of confirmed individuals with the variants has increased,” he said. “These do pose a bit of a risk depending on if these are community level, and perhaps… the most concerning piece of evidence we have so far is that at least some of these cases are not travel-related.
“We may have these variants in the community in Alberta… I think it’s something we have to keep our eye on. I think it’s something we have to be willing to bring restrictions back in if cases do start to rise.”
Jenne added it is “important not to panic” but to look closely at various metrics for any concerning trends.
Stephanie Smith, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Alberta Hospital, said she believes the government announced the easing of restrictions as it faced intense pressure from Albertans to lay out a plan for further reopening the economy and society and to explain what metrics would be used to guide those decisions.
“It’s interesting that it’s… (Jan.29 today) and they’re talking about (Feb. 8 for easing restrictions),” she said. “I think there’s clearly still some concern in that they’re not suggesting that we open today.
“Most of the concern is around the new variants and the fact that we still do have a per cent positivity rate that’s close to five per cent, which I would say is still in a realm that causes some concern in that if we open up too quickly, are we going to see increased spread?”
She described the government’s plans to ease restrictions with a step-by-step approach as being reasonable, because it allows health officials to closely monitor the effect of each restriction that is lifted or eased before moving further. However, she suggested that the number of restrictions the government plans to ease early next month is considerable.
“I mean, opening gyms and kids’ sports and restaurants all at the same time is a lot,” Smith said. “When we’ve had those things open in the past — when we think back to November, and we were in a similar situation where we had kids’ sports open and gyms and restaurants… we were seeing really quite significant transmission.
“So I have a little bit of trepidation about opening all of those things at once.”
Smith noted that she was encouraged by the declining pandemic-related figures over the last few weeks and said it indicates to her that the vast majority of Albertans are being cautious and following the rules.
Notley also said she believes most Albertans are following the rules, but fears business owners who openly defy them, are gaining a competitive advantage over businesses following the rules and that their refusal to adhere to public health restrictions has resulted in Kenney lifting restrictions.
“We are being bullied by these people — the premier is letting them do this to us,” she said.
“I am frustrated that the businesses who are following the rules are paying a penalty because the premier is not enforcing the law.”
She said the government needs to do more to support small businesses suffering during the pandemic rather than prematurely reopening the economy, something she said she fears will lead to more illness, death and strain on the health-care system.
Kenney said Friday that his government needs to address “a mental health crisis in this province that has been deepened and worsened by the economic damage of the past 10 months.”
“To tell small business owners that they may be shut indefinitely, to give them no path or sense of hope, leads to even greater despair,” he said. “We have to give, I think, a measured path that is safe but also presents a sense of hope.”
Jenne said it’s important that Albertans don’t interpret the lifting of restrictions as a sign that the threat posed by COVID-19 has been diminished.
“As pointed out (by Kenney and Hinshaw), the easement of restrictions is not a green light that everything is safe and just to disregard the remaining guidelines,” he said. “These easements are going to be absolutely contingent on us following the other restrictions, so wearing masks in public places, physical distancing, limiting group gatherings.
“We are in a position where we can start easing things slowly but only if we continue to follow the guidelines that are in place.”
Smith said that the lifting of restrictions is “not a licence to just be able to go back to normal.”
“There are restrictions in place even with these openings and we really do need to stick with those restrictions,” she said.
“I think this is a reasonable approach to try and balance the COVID(-19) fatigue… (but) I think we really do need to have good surveillance in place to make sure we’re not seeing significant spread of the new variant because that’s obviously an unknown.”