As Alberta prepares to lift some COVID-19 restrictions starting Feb. 8, including the limited reopening of gyms and the start of in-person dining again, one infectious disease specialist said it’s important the province keeps a close eye on cases as things loosen up.
“I think that the reopenings are not a license to be able to go back to normal,” Dr. Stephanie Smith said. “There are restrictions in place even with these openings. We really do need to stick with those restrictions.”
The first stage of the reopening plan will see gyms and dance studios open for one-on-one private distanced sessions. Restaurants will also open for in-person dining with a maximum of six people per table, from the same household or with two close contacts if you live alone. In that same stage, indoor and outdoor children’s sports will also begin.
Smith said that she believes the staggered plans announced Friday — the opening of gyms, in-person dining and children’s sports are just the first step in a four-step process that will track hospitalization numbers before easing restrictions further — is key to maintaining low case numbers.
“I think the government was under a lot of pressure to make some announcement about their plans,” Smith said.
“I do think that’s a reasonable approach; then you can really see with each opening if we’re seeing increased spread or not.”
Smith added that she believes government officials need to be “very diligent” about surveillance and contact tracing amid the openings.
“I think public health has their work cut out for them, in terms of making sure we’re on top of surveillance, especially with the new variants.”
The province’s four-step process is dependent on hospitalization rates: as rates lower, restrictions will continue to ease.
Smith said she hopes people still try to limit their interactions and outings as restrictions lift.
“When we think about restaurants, I think we should all be cautious about dining out too much,” she said. “But then if people do choose to dine out then they really do have to stick to their family cohort.
“I think there’s clearly still some concern (since) they’re not suggesting that we open today,” Smith said. “Most of the concern is around the new variants.”
Peter Mason, who owns Kelly’s Pub in Edmonton, said he believes many restaurants have been stretched thin through this last closure.
“You’re still paying full rent, you’re still paying for full utilities, you’re still paying for all those things,” Mason said.
“Some people don’t have that deep of pockets to drag it out as long as they have.
“So to have an endpoint, to have an actual physical date… is going to take a little bit of the pressure off.”
Mason said that while take-out has helped keep many restaurants afloat, delivery services like Uber Eats end up taking a cut of the profit in a time when profits are already low.
“There’s a degree of convenience that these companies offer, but it’s also a lot more expensive,” he said. “A lot of restaurants, including us, are offering incentives to order directly through us and come to the door.”
He added that despite his hopefulness towards the return of in-person dining, it will be some time until the industry bounces back to pre-pandemic levels.
“It’s not like flicking a switch. Even if they open things back up, it’s going to take people a long time to recoup what they’ve lost and recover.”
‘It’s been hard’: Gym owners breathe sigh of relief at plan
In-person dining, along with fitness classes or gym facilities, has not been permitted in the province since the current restrictions came into place on Dec. 13.
Friday’s announcement brought a sigh of relief for some gym owners who say it’s been a struggle to stay open.
“It’s been hard being locked down for so long,” said Shara Vigeant, the owner of SVPT Fitness “Even with the government supports, it’s still not enough to cover all the expenses.
“I’m happy for my business, and happy for my trainers to get back to work.”
For Vigeant, the new opening plan fits her business model perfectly: SVPT offers private, one-on-one training sessions in a massive centre.
While she and her staff are excited, she added they’ll be opening with an air of caution.
“There’s still work to be done going forward, we just hope that these numbers stay down so we can stay open,” she said.
Jordan Jeske, the owner of The PROJCT gym, said he’s just relieved to be able to give opportunities to his employees again.
“Being able to get our trainers in here, to at least make a living, to help get our clients and athletes to get in the studio…. is exciting and it’s one step further,” he said.
“We’re excited to get people in the doors, but yeah, it hasn’t been easy at all.”
Group classes have no clear timeline on reopening
For Alberta studios that focus on group classes, the lack of clarity on when they can reopen remains.
The province has included “further easing of indoor fitness and children’s sport and performance” in Step 2 of its reopening plan, but it doesn’t specify any other details, or whether that includes group classes.
Step 3 of the plan includes adult team sports and indoor social gatherings.
Clark said that she’s had to pivot the business model — offering different membership price points for online-only classes — and some clients have still maintained their full memberships to support the studio.
However, she says the unknown of when they can open is weighing on her and her trainers.
“How long is a client going to be willing to pay in-studio prices for a different experience?” Clark said.
“That unknown of how much longer do we have to wait, is very scary.
“We still don’t know as a business what to expect, what to watch for.”