It’s normally billed as The Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth, but with the Calgary Stampede getting the conditional green light to go ahead amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, some are concerned the event could become one of the greatest superspreaders of the novel coronavirus that the province has ever seen.
In an open letter to Premier Jason Kenney on Thursday, the Edmonton Zone Medical Staff Association, which includes Alberta’s former chief medical officer of health Dr. James Talbot, raises concerns about the province’s plan to lift virtually all public health restrictions next month and specifically references Calgary’s largest annual get-together.
“Events such as the Calgary Stampede could pose a significant risk of transmission — less so in the Exhibition Grounds, but with greater risk in the bars, clubs and hotels as well as in crowds,” the letter reads. “Attendees may then travel home to potentially infect their families and close contacts.
“In our opinion, it is unsafe to hold a major event such as the Calgary Stampede, which may draw attendees and participants from multiple provinces and countries before at least 70 per cent of eligible Albertans have been fully vaccinated with two doses.”
Kenney, who, along with several cabinet ministers, has recently come under fire for an outdoor working dinner during which some public health restrictions appear to have been broken , has called his government’s Open for Summer plan “a safe and cautious plan… to get back to normal.”
The premier has set thresholds for each stage of the reopening plan linked to how many Albertans have been partially immunized against COVID-19 and how many people are in hospital.
“At the end of the day, we cannot permanently rely on damaging public health restrictions to protect our public health from this pandemic, especially since we now have the incredibly effective and powerful tool of vaccines,” Kenney said at a news conference last week, adding that vaccines have benefited jurisdictions that have successfully immunized large numbers of people.
“We have seen those jurisdictions be able to open up, get life back to normal while continuing to observe significant declines in pressure from COVID.”
Last week, chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw said that if the benchmarks are reached that would allow for a massive event like the Stampede to go forward, she does not believe the event will pose a “significant risk to the health-care system.”
The Stampede has said it is planning for a scaled-down event that still includes midway rides and a rodeo, but does not include chuckwagon races.
TC Energy, a company that says it has a “longstanding relationship with the Calgary Stampede,” said this week that while it will continue to offer financial support to some Stampede events, it won’t be “participating in those events this year, from both a brand and a hosting perspective.”
“This is a difficult decision for us but we believe it is the prudent one,” TC Energy spokesperson Suzanne Wilton said in a statement to Global News on Friday. “Safety is our primary value and nothing is more important than the health, wellness and safety of our people and the communities where we live and work.
“TC Energy has a responsibility to deliver the energy North America needs safely and reliably. While we are as eager as everyone to return to normal, we must remain vigilant in our own protocols. Participating in Stampede events could create unnecessary health and safety risks for our people and business partners.”
While TC Energy won’t take part in Stampede events as a company, it says it has not directed employees in whether they should or should not attend on their own personal time.
The EZMSA said it believes “planning such an event with the current unknowns, along with concerns of reduced vaccine protection against highly-transmissible variants puts attendees and their contacts at risk.”
“It also increases the risk of a fourth wave of COVID-19 later in the autumn of this year,” the association’s letter reads.
When Global News asked for comment on the EZMSA’s letter and the decision made by TC Energy, a spokesperson for the Calgary Stampede said its organizers are working closely with Alberta Health to ensure “safe Stampede experiences” are held in July.
“It is important to note that this Stampede will look different with an emphasis on outdoor attractions, more space and fewer people,” the spokesperson said.
“Our focus in 2021 is primarily local and regional visitors, and we have been realistic since planning began that international visitors would not be possible this year.”
Last month, the Calgary Stampede’s communications manager said safety will be the event organizers’ top priority.
“Normally, when you come to Stampede Park, (there are) lots of crowds, lots of lineups, and we know this year we can’t have that,” Kristina Barnes said.
“(But) there will be that comfort that we have each year that we celebrate the spirit of our community.”
A spokesperson for the premier’s office told Global News “Albertans have worked hard to crush the spike of COVID-19 and deserve to enjoy the summer.”
“Albertans are excited that their province will soon reopen and large events like the Calgary Stampede will proceed,” Jerrica Goodwin said in an email on Friday.
“Alberta’s Open for Summer Plan is based on expert advice from the chief medical officer of health that having 70 per cent of the population vaccinated with at least one dose will allow for the safe lifting of public health restrictions.”
In an email to Global News on Friday, Alberta Health spokesperson Tom McMillan said the province is “limiting the spread of variants in Alberta as we safely open for summer,” addressing one of the issues raised by the EZMSA.
“To date, there have been 88 cases of the B.1.617 variant identified in Alberta,” McMillan said. “We are now screening 100 per cent of our positive tests each day for the B.1.617 and all other variants of concern.
“With this aggressive screening in place, case investigation teams have begun conducting two follow-up calls for every case with this variant. This second notification will allow us to do even more in-depth investigations and aggressively contain the virus.”
McMillan added that Alberta is also currently “leading the country” in second doses of COVID-19 vaccines and that the pace of vaccination is only accelerating.
“Alberta’s data released shows that one dose of vaccines have been 73 per cent effective against the U.K. variant and 75 per cent effective against the P.1 variant. With two doses, this number rises to 91 per cent and 89 per cent, respectively,” he said. “Since Jan. 1, 96 per cent of all confirmed COVID-19 cases in Alberta were either unvaccinated or diagnosed within two weeks of receiving their first dose, while their immunity was still building.
“Just 0.2 per cent of all people who had one dose of vaccine in that time frame since Jan. 1, got COVID(-19) once 14 days had passed since that shot.”
In an interview with Global News on Thursday, Talbot said the newly-named Delta variant, which is also known as the Indian variant, “is capable of infecting about two-thirds of the people who only had one dose of the vaccine.”
He added that he is concerned about other variants’ ability to worsen the health crisis as well.
“Before large-scale events that have the ability to restart a fourth wave, in which all Albertans who have only received one or zero doses are at risk, before that should happen, we should have 70 per cent of the population with two doses, and that could be achieved by the fall,” he said.
“I think most countries — the U.K. is the most experienced with this new variant — are looking hard at not reopening in a significant way until people have received two doses in significant numbers.”
Late last month, country singer Paul Brandt, who was slated to perform at the Stampede last year before the pandemic forced its cancellation, announced he would not be performing at the event if it goes ahead this year.
In a statement, the musician said he looks forward to returning to stages, including ones at the Stampede, when the time is right.
“I have had a positive and longstanding partnership with the Calgary Stampede throughout my career,” Brandt said.
“Like many musicians, when it comes to my performances, it is always about the fans, and creating the best possible experience for them.”
Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi has said there will still be distancing rules if the Stampede goes ahead and other changes will be made to ensure the event is safe for everyone.
“Large public events like the Calgary Stampede should be cancelled or postponed to the autumn after most Albertans will have been fully immunized,” the EZMSA said in its letter.
To date, nearly 65 per cent of Albertans have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.
–With files from The Canadian Press
Watch below: Some recent Global News videos about the Calgary Stampede.