By Dean Bennett
EDMONTON — Alberta Premier Jason Kenney has announced a three-stage reopening plan that could see almost all COVID-19 restrictions gone by early July — as long as people continue to get vaccinated.
“We are truly near the end of this thing,” Kenney said Wednesday. “We’re leaving the darkest days of the pandemic behind and stepping into the warm light of summer.”
Reopenings are based on more Albertans getting vaccinated and the number of patients in hospital with COVID-19 continuing to decline. A two-week lag is built in between stages to ensure vaccines have time to take effect.
Kenney said almost all public health measures could be lifted as early as June 28, when 70 per cent of Albertans aged 12 and over are expected to have received at least one shot.
There would be no restrictions on indoor or outdoor social gatherings, and domestic and international visitors would be welcome.
Kenney suggested Alberta could even be on track to hold signature summer festivals such as the Calgary Stampede.
“I’d love to be in the griddle-rental business in Calgary today,” said Kenney. “There’s going to be some pretty good business, I think.”
Opposition NDP Leader Rachel Notley questioned the speed of the restriction rollbacks. She said they are far more aggressive than in comparable provinces and she wants Kenney to show the data to support his decisions.
Notley accused Kenney of moving recklessly to prematurely bask in a glow of post-pandemic good times as a way to reverse low popularity numbers and quell dissension in a rural United Conservative caucus.
That caucus has challenged his health measures and, in the case of former backbencher Todd Loewen, his leadership.
“We don’t want this (pandemic restriction regime) to go on forever,” Notley told the house during question period.
“What we do want is to avoid another Round 4 of this premier sprinting us into another wave because his political vulnerability is more important than the vulnerability of our health system.
“This does not look like an evidence-based plan. It looks like the premier is working backwards from the Stampede.”
Kenney said the strategy has the OK from health officials and builds on a base of more than nine per cent of eligible Albertans receiving the required second dose — the highest such percentage in Canada.
“This is a far more cautious approach than, for example, many U.S. states have taken,” he said.
The first stage begins Friday and effectively reverses health restrictions brought in three weeks ago.
It’s tied to a benchmark that has already been reached: 50 per cent of Albertans 12 and older getting at least one dose of vaccine and fewer than 800 COVID-19 patients hospitalized.
There were 548 people in hospital as of Wednesday afternoon.
On Friday, worship services, currently limited to 15 people, will be allowed to rise to 15 per cent of maximum fire code occupancy.
The rest of the changes are to begin Tuesday.
Barber shops, hair salons and other personal wellness services, shuttered since early May, will be able to reopen for appointments. Restaurants will remain closed to in-person dining, but patio service will be allowed to resume.
Retailers will be able to welcome more customers inside, and outdoor social gatherings will double to 10 from five. Indoor social gatherings remain banned.
Students from kindergarten to Grade 12 resumed in-person classes this week.
The bulk of the remaining restrictions are expected to be lifted as early as June 10, when it’s projected that 60 per cent of eligible Albertans will have had at least one vaccine shot and there could be fewer than 500 COVID-19 patients in hospital.
At that time, entertainment venues that have been shuttered for months — including movie theatres, casinos and museums — would be allowed to open at one-third capacity. Restaurants could have diners inside.
There would be no restrictions on youth and adult sports. Public gatherings could have up to 150 people, and grandstands for sports and other events would be open at one-third capacity.
Alberta has nearly 11,000 active COVID-19 cases — about half of what it had three weeks ago, when Kenney tightened rules to tamp down a surge that threatened to overwhelm hospitals and force doctors to triage patients.
There were more than 700 in hospital at that time and Alberta had the highest infection rate in North America.
To date, more than 2.5 million Albertans have received at least one vaccine dose.
Infectious diseases specialist Dr. Lynora Saxinger said the rollout has some worrisome question marks.
Saxinger noted there is little data to draw from on potential effects of resuming large public events. She also pointed out vaccination uptake in the province is patchy: high in some areas and low in others.
“I do think it seems to be starting quite quickly given that we’re just coming down from quite a significant peak (in cases),” said Saxinger, who is with the University of Alberta.
“We still have pretty full hospitals and ICUs, so there’s not a lot of decompression time before things start to open up.”
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