Alberta officials announced Monday that effective immediately, the province will move forward “safely and cautiously” with parts of Step 2 of its COVID-19 reopening plan.
As of Monday, Alberta eased restrictions for indoor fitness facilities and for libraries.
“We’re allowing folks to do more things that are important to them,” Health Minister Tyler Shandro said.
Officials explained libraries, especially in rural areas, can be crucial resources for Albertans to access information and the internet.
- These facilities can now open but must limit capacity to 15 per cent of fire code occupancy, not including staff.
Indoor fitness (no change to outdoor fitness):
- Unsupervised, low-intensity individual and group exercises are now allowed by appointment only.
- Mandatory physical distance of three metres is required between participants — including coaches and trainers — at all times, and masks must be worn at all times by trainers and those participating in low-intensity activities.
- All indoor fitness must be pre-registered — no drop-ins allowed.
- Low-intensity exercises include weightlifting, low-intensity dance classes, yoga, barre and indoor climbing, as well as the low-intensity use of treadmills, ellipticals and related equipment.
- High-intensity activities, including running, spin and high-intensity interval training, continue to be allowed only on a one-on-one with a trainer basis, or training with a household and one trainer.
As a cautionary measure, changes to current restrictions for retail, children’s sports, hotels, banquet halls, community halls and conference centres have been delayed.
Premier Jason Kenney said if the numbers go in the right direction and the variants of concern are under control, “I think we can absolutely look forward to taking additional steps within Phase 2.”
The previously provided threshold for Step 2 was to see hospitalizations under 450. Currently, there are 257 Albertans in hospital, 48 of whom are in intensive care.
Kenney said pressure on the health-care system has eased and there’s been a “sharp decline in people admitted to hospital and intensive care for COVID.”
Long-term care and designated supportive living facilities “have seen cases plummet,” he added.
Actives cases in long-term care have now declined more than 95 per cent from December’s peak, the premier said, and designated supportive living cases have dropped by more than 92 per cent.
“This is encouraging data,” Kenney said.
However, officials are concerned with the R value, positivity rate, active case rates and the threat caused by variants of concern.
“Alberta is taking a careful approach,” Kenney said. “While our hospitalizations are dropping, we have seen the number of active cases level off recently and the testing positivity rate has risen a bit.
“That’s why we have to proceed cautiously while still moving forward,” he said. “We must take a balanced approach and move carefully and (stay) safely focused on the data.”
“I have to stress the huge importance of avoiding indoor social gatherings,” the premier said.
“Now that our contact tracing system is on top of new cases… we can see good data — about a third of the cases we don’t know their source of transmission — but for over 30 per cent, we know they’re happening at home, just like in the fall. So we need to be very careful about at-home transmission.”
Alberta is offering free, voluntary hotel stays with isolation payments to support people who can’t isolate at home.
“We need to be more careful than ever to not create opportunity for the virus and its variants to spread,” chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw said.
“The progress we’ve made is not guaranteed to last.”
This is Stage 2 of a four-stage plan to reopen the economy announced by Kenney a month ago.
Step 1 started in Alberta on Feb. 8, which saw restaurants reopen to in-person dining, one-on-one indoor fitness offered and some children’s sports and performance activities were allowed to resume under some health restrictions.
Alberta moved into Phase1B of its vaccine rollout plan last week, with vaccinations being offered to community seniors 75 and older.
As of Monday, 235,000 doses of the vaccine have been administered across Alberta and 88,000 people are fully immunized.
“The game changer is the vaccine,” Kenney said.
“It is incredibly frustrating and totally unacceptable that Canada is ranked 40th in the world for per capita inoculation against this virus.
“Widespread use of the vaccine will mean freedom,” the premier said, urging the federal government to “catch up with rest of the world in vaccine procurement.”
Hinshaw said long lines at some clinics have been minimized by processes put in place by Alberta Health Services.
She asked for patience “as we work through some challenges.”
Hinshaw said people with vaccine appointments should wait in their vehicles and arrive no more than five minutes before their scheduled appointment time.
“If you are comfortable going into your appointment alone, please don’t bring a support person with you.”
She said seniors should wear clothing where it’s easy to expose your arm.
Albertans born in 1946 or earlier can book their vaccine appointments by using the AHS online booking tool, calling 811 or by calling participating pharmacies.
Hinshaw said Monday Alberta had identified 291 new cases of COVID-19 in the last 24 hours. Over the same time period, more than 5,900 tests had been completed, putting Alberta’s positivity rate at 4.9 per cent.
Thirty-five additional cases of the variant have been identified since Sunday, bringing the provincial total to 457.
The R value for the province sits at 1.01.
Two additional deaths were reported to Alberta Health in the last 24 hours. Both were linked to COVID-19 outbreaks and included comorbidities.
A woman in her 90s in the Calgary zone, linked to the outbreak at Foothills Medical Centre, passed away.
A woman in her 80s in the North zone, linked to the outbreak at Heritage Lodge, also died.
Two doctors who co-chair the Edmonton Zone Medical Staff Association’s pandemic committee made a plea for a more cautious approach in a statement released Friday.
“The health-care system and the population, after having been stressed for so long, really can’t tolerate another surge before the end of our vaccination campaign,” said Dr. Noel Gibney and Dr. James Talbot, noting it will be months before all at-risk Albertans are inoculated.
“Any further easing of COVID-19 restrictions should only be undertaken when all high-risk individuals in the province have been immunized. We have a short window remaining to prevent another surge and protect Albertans, but it is rapidly closing.”
Ahead of Monday’s news conference, Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi also stressed a need for a cautious move forward.
“Yesterday’s number, maybe it was a blip — 415 new cases. But if it’s not a blip, that means we’ve quadrupled the number of new cases almost in just over a week. And so that’s actually very, very troubling. And so if I were the provincial government, I might wait just a couple more days to see if that’s a trend that is setting in, or if that was just a blip, before making any decisions.”
With files from The Canadian Press and Caley Ramsay, Global News