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COVID-19: Some businesses disappointed by Alberta’s Step 2 reopening plan

WATCH ABOVE: Some videos from Monday's news conference at which Premier Jason Kenney, Health Minister Tyler Shandro and Dr. Deena Hinshaw spoke.

The Alberta government announced Monday it was entering Step 2 of its pandemic-reopening plan, but some businesses that thought they might be able to resume activities at this stage found out they will still have to wait.

“It’s devastating on a personal level,” said Grady Topak, a co-owner of YEG Cycle Spin Studio in Edmonton. “As a business owner, this year’s been tough.

“But it’s also been devastating for our employees, many of them who have been without work for… seven months of the last year that we’ve been completely closed.”

Topak’s business won’t be able to offer high-intensity group workouts as a result of the loosening of restrictions that took effect Monday.

The easing of restrictions announced by Alberta chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Health Minister Tyler Shandro and Premier Jason Kenney will allow for low-intensity group fitness workouts and also let libraries reopen.

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READ MORE: COVID-19: Low-intensity indoor fitness allowed as Alberta ‘cautiously’ enters Step 2 

Because of ongoing concern that Alberta’s declining hospitalization numbers could reverse as a result of new COVID-19 variants that experts say may have the possibility to spread the coronavirus exponentially faster, the province held off on allowing for other activities it had previously outlined in Step 2, like allowing for more customers in retail environments and easing restrictions on banquet and community halls.

“We’re not out of the woods, but we can continue taking small steps forward,” Kenney said.

Lynora Saxinger, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Alberta, said she believes provincial officials are trying to navigate what is an “uneasy phase that we are in right now.”

“It’s tough because the numbers have been OK, but the whole wildcard of the variants and everything has made it really challenging,” she said. “It sounds like they’re trying to balance some competing concerns and I think there’s been a lot of pressure to get gyms open.

“(It looks like) they’re trying to reduce the risk related with fitness facilities and open them in a reasonable way, so I guess we’ll see how that pans out.”

Topak said he believes his fitness studio has demonstrated previously that it is able to operate safely amid the pandemic.

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“You know, when you look at the numbers that the government released that were attributed to fitness classes, the transmission levels were lower than a lot of other locations,” he said.

READ MORE: COVID-19: Gym owners call on Alberta government to ease more restrictions, allow for full reopening 

The dance program at Edmonton’s Vimy Ridge Academy, along with the Edmonton School of Ballet, have been trying to plan ahead for various scenarios in an effort to get young dances back on stage in front of at least their parents.

Tina Covlin-Dewart, the director of the dance program at the Vimy Ridge Academy, suggested Monday’s announcement means she will continue having to explore possibilities for resuming classes.

“We’d love to be able to get all of our students back into classes — from three years old to adults — but we understand that we might be performing outside and we’re really looking for any venue, any possibility from the province of bringing in audiences,” she said.

“We are so desperate to get our students on stage in some way, shape or form this year, whether that’s outdoor venues or indoor venues. Performing arts art about being in front of a live audience.”

In a statement posted to the City of Edmonton’s Twitter account Monday afternoon, city manager Andre Corbould suggested that decisions still have to be made on how the newly-eased restrictions will be rolled out in city-run facilities.

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“We will begin a thoughtful approach to determine how this new information might affect services offered by the city,” he said. “This will be further discussed during the Wednesday, March 3 emergency advisory committee meeting of council.

“The process includes preparing our staff, ensuring safe access to our facilities and communicating details.”

For more information on city facilities during the COVID-19 pandemic, click here.

The government said reopening libraries was a priority, especially in communities where people rely on the facilities for access to high-speed internet. Libraries will only be allowed to operate at 15 per cent capacity.

“(The steps announced Monday) really read to me kind of like a consensus middle ground, and pretty much everywhere is having the same discussion right now, where places that are over the second surge are following along with what’s happening with variants and wondering what they can do in terms of opening or not,” Saxinger said.

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“There’s not a single big book of right answers unfortunately. I’m kind of a cautious person by nature, and so I’m a little bit anxious about having more connectivity and more possibility for gatherings, but you know, on the other hand, the changes that are being made are fairly modest and I’m just hopeful that we can all kind of do the basics well enough to have this be successful.”

READ MORE: Alberta doctors urge province to hold off on easing COVID-19 restrictions 

Hinshaw said Monday that the province had a 4.9 per cent COVID-19 positivity rate and that across the province, the R value (a metric that reflects the rate of a virus’ spread) was 1.01 over the past week, indicating transmission rates are likely rising. She also said officials have identified 35 additional cases involving variants over the past 24 hours, raising the total number of cases in the province involving variants to 457.

“(The situation) could actually stay stable for a period of time, and we could be successful with this,” Saxinger said.

“(But) if we started seeing even a few large superspreader events related to variants of concern, it could really change the shape of things in a really big hurry, and that’s the sort of thing I’d like to know what the plan is — for our response — if we start seeing problems like that.”

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–With files from Global News’ Lisa MacGregor and The Canadian Press’ Dean Bennett

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