Reaction is pouring in after the Alberta government announced a public health state of emergency and new COVID-19 measures on Wednesday.
Premier Jason Kenney said the government has “reluctantly decided to adopt the restriction exemption program,” meaning a vaccine passport system. He called the fourth wave of the pandemic a “crisis of the unvaccinated.”
‘A skilled contortionist’
Protect Our Province Alberta — a group of physicians, scientists and advocates formed in July that held its own COVID-19 briefings after the government scaled back restrictions — held an emergency update Wednesday evening, with many saying the information from the province is a lot to digest and several health experts had forecasted this dire scenario.
“With today’s announcement, Jason Kenney has demonstrated himself to be a skilled contortionist, bending himself virtually into a pretzel in order to appease a small fringe but vocal group of individuals who are opposed to vaccination,” said Edmonton infectious disease physician Dr. Ilan Schwartz.
“As a result, we’re left with a hodgepodge of measures that are confusing, and consequently, they’re likely ineffectual.”
COVID-19 is ‘predictable and preventable’
Kenney said: “There’s one thing we’ve all learned through COVID, which is the unpredictability of the disease.”
Family physician Dr. David Keegan called out Kenney’s claim.
“Scientists projected the exact scenario that we are in right now, and the government ignored them,” he said.
“COVID is both predictable and preventable. It can be prevented and can be predicted months ahead. There are jurisdictions that have a perfect pandemic response, which is Atlantic Canada, among others, and New Zealand,” said Dr. Gosia Gasperowicz.
“I’m really happy that the government finally treats this COVID crisis seriously, so it’s a good step forward. But I’m afraid the measures might be not strong enough to bend the curve immediately, and we need to bend the curve immediately to stop the disaster that is happening.”
Whether or not these public health measures are going to be enough remains to be seen, said front-line COVID-19 physician Dr. Neeja Bakshi.
“One thing that we all can agree on is that they are late in coming. Our health-care system… is in dire straits. We are in positions that none of us have ever been in before,” she said.
“We are faced every day with the fear of having to implement triage or make tough decisions.“
Doctors warned that if people don’t change their behaviours, many are going to suffer and die.
“I’m just deeply saddened about having to be in this position again, and I don’t understand why it took so long for the leadership of this province to acknowledge the mounting crisis in the health system and the realities of COVID,” said infectious disease physician Dr. Leyla Asadi.
Spread in schools
Dr. Wing Li with Support Our Students Alberta said a gaping hole in the province’s press conference was addressing COVID-19’s spread in schools.
“Bringing in provincial masking for grades 4 to 12 will mitigate transmission; that was needed. Then masking should be extended from kindergarten to Grade 3. We need to have contact tracing reinstated in school. I didn’t hear that,” she said, noting that there are at least 40 schools with a 10 per cent or greater absenteeism due to respiratory illness.
“There’s no guidance being offered from public health, so why not offer rapid testing in schools as a follow-up option if there is exposure?
“The role of government is to lead, and instead of them being ahead on health and safety of students, we’re always pulling them to catch up.”
‘Why should a business have to dictate a mandate?’
In Edmonton, O’Byrne’s Irish Pub general manager Cathal O’Byrne said the announcement brings “a little bit of arm twisting for businesses” — especially for restaurants and bars.
“It is our social responsibility to protect our local community, so of course, we’ll be participating in the restrictions exemption program to make sure that we are protecting our community and making sure that everyone stays safe and we take the pressure off the hospitals,” he said.
The province said starting Sept. 20, businesses or event organizers “who choose to implement a program checking patrons for government-issued proof of vaccination or a recent negative privately purchased COVID-19 test” will be exempt from restrictions. If a business chooses not to require proof of vaccination, it has to follow the new health measures, the government said.
“This is a family-run business, and it’s going to be difficult, but we’re going to make it happen.”
Ernie Tsu, the president of the Alberta Hospitality Association, echoed the confusion that doctors expressed about how the new measures will be implemented, adding that he doesn’t understand why the pressure is on businesses to enforce these rules.
“It will be next to impossible for not just our industry, fitness or any other industry to enforce as well. We’re already in a divided cultural situation here,” he said.
“Why is the government not leading? I’ll tell you why. The government has been absent the last four weeks when the cases started to rise, and now we’re in this situation. Why should a business have to dictate a mandate?”
Megan Clark with Studio B Fitness in Edmonton said the facility has had a vaccine policy in place since Sept. 1. She is left with a lot of questions but is thankful to stay open.
“We’ve required double vaccination right from the beginning, and now the way that their program looks, they’re stepping it in to allow people time,” she said.
“Do we have to follow that one? Can we continue to follow or have our own guidelines requiring the two vaccines? So I need to spend a little more time figuring out that.”
Businesses need guidance, support to implement vaccine passport: CFIB
The Canadian Federation of Independent Business said it appreciates the province is trying to avoid another full lockdown, but “must also think of the logistical challenges the incoming public health restrictions will have for small businesses,” said Annie Dormuth, Alberta provincial affairs director.
The CFIB says Alberta businesses need clarity on the proof-of-vaccination program, including:
- What can they do to protect their staff who have to refuse entry to unvaccinated patrons?
- Do event venues have to refund contracts (such as a wedding) if the clients are unvaccinated? Do they have liability immunity protecting them from being taken to small claims court for a cancelled event?
- How can they avoid fraud? Are they liable if a customer presents fraudulent or doctored documents?
- If the business owner or staff are unvaccinated, does that mean they cannot enter their own business as a patron?
The CFIB is calling on the province to support businesses affected by vaccine passports by providing financial support, develop official government signage explaining the rules to customers and training for staff “when it comes to dealing with a very divided public, including what to do if a customer refuses to comply with the rules.”
Chambers of commerce
The president of Calgary Chamber of Commerce said the restriction exemption program is a critical step in the fight against COVID-19.
However, Deborah Yedlin said clarity on the new rules is urgently needed.
“Yesterday’s announcement prompted more questions than answers for our business community.
“Most immediately, businesses need clarity on key elements of the Restriction Exemption Program. It will also be critical to accelerate the implementation of a QR code system and create simple processes along with continued support for businesses as they move forward with the program,” Yedlin said.
“Implementation of new measures will not be without pain points, but overall, organizations participating in the Rapid Exemption Program are facing a competitive advantage. They will operate with fewer restrictions, attract fully vaccinated people back to their businesses and are now on a more even playing field with other jurisdictions, which supports their ability to attract investment and business from outside the province and minimizes challenges related to cross-border labour.
“We are working closely with the provincial government and Calgary businesses to seek the clarity needed that will support rapid and widespread implementation of vaccine certification.”