Alberta Premier Jason Kenney says the province will begin loosening up its health measures on Feb. 8 as part of a new "path forward for easing COVID-19 health restrictions, with clear benchmarks for hospitalizations."
A detailed plan for gradually reopening businesses in the province was outlined by the premier, under which decreasing hospitalization numbers will trigger new levels of restrictions being lifted. The first businesses to benefit are restaurants and gyms.
"It is important that we show Albertans that there is a path forward," Kenney said at a news conference Friday.
"But this must be done carefully, slowly and in a way that's driven not by opinions but by data."
Hospitalizations will be the key metric for easing restrictions further, he said, supplemented by daily numbers and case growth.
"We chose hospitalizations because it's a clear indicator of health-care capacity," Kenney said. "It's also a lagging indicator, which means it gives us a better idea of how relaxations affect the health-care system."
Daily case numbers and case growth, meanwhile, are leading metrics that better reflect recent transmission trends, he said.
Those statistics "will be used to guide decisions around the need to pause further relaxations, or potentially to increase restrictions if the virus once again poses a growing threat."
If cases of COVID-19 surge again, restrictions will be reimposed, he said.
"If we start moving once again toward exponential growth like we saw in November, December, and if somehow one of these new viral variants takes hold in our community and begins to spread at rates seen in some other parts of the world, we will have to impose stronger restrictions again.
Restaurants, gyms first up
Under the reopening plan, when hospitalizations decrease below 600, the province will consider step 1 of its reopening, easing restrictions on school-related indoor and outdoor children's sport and performance activities, indoor personal fitness places (one-on-one and by appointment only), and on restaurants, cafes and pubs.
Currently, there are 594 people in hospital with COVID-19, with 110 of them in intensive care, which is why the first phase of reopening will begin on Feb. 8.
"Now these activities will still be bound by clear limitations," Kenney said. "For example, there will be physical distancing requirements, activity restrictions, group size limitations and masking, amongst other mandatory measures."
When hospitalizations fall below 450, restrictions will be eased on retail businesses, community halls and hotels, banquet halls and conference centres.
Below 300, restrictions will loosen on places of worship, adult team sports, public attractions, theatres, casinos and libraries will be eased.
All other activities — including festivals, weddings and sporting events — will have to wait until hospitalizations drop below 150.
To move from one stage to the next, hospitalizations must remain below the benchmark for three weeks.
"We must do this in a careful, gradual, stepped approach," Kenney said. "We have to be careful and deliberate and allow for the full 21 days to elapse between measures."
Kenney asked Albertans to not take today's announcement as encouragement to return to normal patterns of socializing and social interaction.
"We'll lose the progress that we made to date, we'll start piling up more pressure on our hospitals again. Avoiding that fate is in all of our hands collectively."
Opposition Leader Rachel Notley said easing restrictions now repeats a dangerous pattern.
"We know that we are in a race between the vaccine and a very dangerous new COVID-19 variant and possible third wave. And today, our premier has given the variant a head start."
While she hopes to see the steady decline in new cases, hospitalizations and deaths continue, Notley said experiences of the past year and seen in other jurisdictions around the world could prove ominous.
"We had far lower numbers in the summer and we still saw those escalate quickly into a much more dangerous second wave."
The last week of January had been a frustrating one for Albertans who are growing impatient with COVID-19 and the ongoing health restrictions.
Kenney had strong words for people ignoring restrictions.
"Folks, don't you understand now that we're at 11 months into this; that the death rate for the elderly and frail is directly correlated to how much spread we get in the general community? That is the reality. We do not live in a situation where we can perfectly segregate the elderly and frail from the rest of society, and that's true everywhere," he said.
"General community transmission does cost lives. And that is why this is irresponsible and selfish if you are breaking these rules flagrantly."
He also castigated businesses flouting the law.
"What they are doing is saying their personal wishes outweigh the need to protect our health-care system," he said.
As the number of scofflaws increase, "we end up with a situation where there is a total lack of equity, where businesses and individuals who follow the rules are effectively punished for doing so.
"I would plead with those Albertans to take a step back and look at this objectively, and have a fair mind."
Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta's chief medical officer of health, said more cases of the COVID-19 variant identified first in the United Kingdom have been detected in Alberta.
There are now 31 cases of the B117 variant, all but three related to international travel. Those three belong to the same household and, at this point, the variant is not believed to have entered the broader population, Hinshaw said Friday.
The variant is known for its ease of transmission, as is another variant first identified in South Africa which has also been found in Alberta. All six of those cases are linked to international travel.
After learning Thursday, the province will be getting far fewer doses of vaccine due to a national shortage as Canada's main supplier of vaccine Pfizer is upgrading its Belgian plant, Alberta learned Friday that its only other vaccine supplier is reducing its shipments as well.
To date, 104,327 Albertans have been vaccinated, with more than 12,000 of them having received the required second dose.
On a positive note, the number of cases in the province continues its downward trend.
Alberta reported 7,805 active cases Friday and 14 new deaths to bring the total to 1,620.