By Nikki Jamieson
Southern Alberta Newspapers
The province is aiming to do a “gentle glide” when it comes to easing up on public health restrictions, according to Premier Jason Kenney.
Kenney, along with Chief Medical Officer of Health for Alberta Deena Hinshaw, and the Minister of Jobs, Economy and Innovation Doug Schweitzer had talked on the health restrictions in place to combat the spread of COVID-19 and how they would be eased during a business telephone town hall event, earlier this month. Kenney began by thanking business owners for their diligence and care over the past 10 months. As thanks to them and the vast majority of Albertans being responsible, the province has managed to do very well “in these strange and difficult times.”
“Unfortunately, after a good first nine months in keeping Albertans safe from COVID, while minimizing restrictions on our economy for much of that time, we got hit by a very serious spike in cases, as you know, in the fall,” said Kenney. “We were doubling COVID cases every 14 days, our hospitalizations went from a hundred to nearly a thousand between the end of October and the end of December, and we were going in a direction where it was truly going to threaten the capacity of our health care system, force mass cancellation of surgeries and other care and potentially create a truly devastating situation in terms of loss of life — something we could not accept. A risk that would be unacceptable, I think, to the majority of Albertans. So that is why with reluctance and regret, we had to bring in targeted restrictions and health measures in late November.”
While he felt for those who had suffered from the increased restrictions and the “largest contraction of the global economy since the 1930s,” along with the largest collapse in energy prices ever on top of five challenging years, Kenney said he felt Albertans have been showing their resilience throughout the pandemic, and the provincial government is working to try to support small businesses through actions such as waivers on WCB premiums, tax deferrals and relaunch grants. The province has announced they are working towards a careful relaxation of public health measures.
“As tough as restrictions have been, I hope you can realize in the national and international context, we’ve really tried to use restrictions as a last and limited resort to control viral transmission and protect our health care system,” said Kenney. “Ours are one of the only provinces that have manufacturing, construction continue to operate through these last restrictions. We’ve ensured retail, large and small, can continue. Obviously, the hardest hit has been in tourism and the hospitality sector and gyms and fitness and some other businesses.”
“But we do have laid out a plan for gradual relaxation, so you will know what the key metrics are, which is tied to the number of people in hospitals with COVID-19, because that is really what it comes back to for us,” continued Kenney.
When making decisions based on Hinshaw’s and other experts’ advice, Kenney says they have to be constantly aware of the pressure on the health care system. Kenney stated the new COVID-19 variants now circulating around the world are “deeply concerning,” as they can spread at least 50 per cent faster than the standard variant Alberta has been dealing with in the past.
“Even very strict public health restrictions cannot contain some of these variants, if you see what is happening in the U.K., Ireland, Israel, Brazil and elsewhere. And that is why this path to relaxation is so careful and I know it doesn’t include everything that you would like to do as quickly as you would like, as business owners, but folks, please understand we are trying to avoid putting you all on a roller coaster of closing and openings, closings and openings. We’re trying to get this on a gentle glide path where we can control viral spread to protect the health system, while minimizing broader damage to our society and economy.”
Kenney noted back in January, the province did the “most important aspect of re-opening” by re-opening schools, with 720,000 back working together five days a week.
As that was a vector for transmissions, the province had to wait and see whether that would accelerate transmission. Additionally, a couple of weeks ago they also re-opened personal services by appointment, allowing small outdoor social gatherings and increase the allowance on funeral attendance.
Announced in late January, the easement of province-wide health measures will occur in steps based on COVID-19 hospitalization benchmarks, which are as follows: Step 1 – 600 hospitalizations and declining, Step 2 – 450 and declining, Step 3 – 300 and declining and Step 4 – 150 and declining. Changes will only be considered once these benchmarks are hit with a three-week evaluation period, and restrictions will come back if hospitalizations rise above these benchmarks.
“That is a gradual glide path, but it is an effort to take steps carefully forward, while keeping a very, very close eye on the extremely contagious new variants.”
Schweitzer said they have been working to get the turnaround time down for the relaunch grant, and that when people apply for it, the average turnaround time is about 10 days. More than 47,000 businesses apply for it with $300 million distributed to help support small businesses so far, with the province forecasting they will be providing more than $500 million in supports for small business.
“Through this, also in real time, we’ve also seen the occasional gap, where we have to do a fix,” said Schweitzer.
“A perfect example is we’ve heard feedback sole proprietors were having trouble with certain registration numbers, so we had to do a fix on that, starting February 4. Same thing for businesses that started during the middle of the pandemic. I mean, nothing is more Albertan than somebody that started a business in the middle of the pandemic, making sure the supports were available for them.”
Schweitzer noted the government had a roadmap, including vaccine timing that “we all were kind of counting on” — but with the recent delays, that has changed, which has affected their planning and forecasts. He recommended people visit http://www.alberta.ca/biz-connect.
“I know it’s very frustrating to be waiting, while you’re not sure what’s going to happen and wanting to re-open and wanting to show how you can create a safe space for Albertans. What we do need to be mindful of though is comparison with, while we are much lower than our peak in December — which is great and a testament to all the hard work many people have done — we remain in a concerning place with respect to our overall hospitalization and ICU, as well as our case numbers for opening in a rapid way,” said Hinshaw.
“We do need to be very cautious, we do need to take small steps and monitor, because the last thing we want is to put at risk sacrifices that we’ve made in the last couple of months.”