As of midnight Tuesday, Albertans will no longer need to show their QR code to dine in restaurants or sit at entertainment venues.
Premier Jason Kenney announced the three-step plan to ease public health measures in the province on Tuesday. As he’d previously promised, the restrictions exemption program — Alberta’s version of the vaccine passport — was first to go.
“It is clear that we passed the peak of our current infections about three weeks ago and are now seeing the result as COVID-related hospital admissions are declining,” Kenney said at a news conference.
“It has always been the government’s approach to keep public health measures in place only so long as they are absolutely necessary to protect public health and our health-care system throughout the pandemic.”
Capacity limits, masks for youngsters
At midnight, capacity limits will be removed for smaller venues, including libraries and places of worship with a capacity of less than 500. Food and beverage consumption will be allowed in venues where audiences are seated.
Larger venues will still have some limits: facilities with a capacity of 500 to 1,000 will continue to be limited to 500, while those with capacity for 1,000-plus people will be limited to 50 per cent.
Also part of the first phase, children aged 12 and under will be exempt from all masking requirements; in schools, masking requirements will be lifted for students of all ages. Both those measures take effect on Monday.
“The threat of COVID-19 to public health no longer outweighs the hugely damaging impact of health restrictions on our society, on people’s mental health, on their emotional wellbeing, on our broader social health,” Kenney said.
“So now is the time to begin learning to live with COVID.”
When asked why the province is moving so quickly to remove health measures, Kenney said, “We know that in many areas that we are already having compliance problems.
“I just think it would invite very widespread non-compliance for no useful purpose.”
Divided families, destroyed livelihoods
The restrictions have divided families and friends and inflamed tensions in communities and neighbourhoods, while livelihoods have been disrupted and destroyed, he said.
“We’ll never be able to do a full accounting of the extent of the pain and hardship that restrictions have caused,” Kenney said.
“We cannot remain at a heightened state of emergency forever. We have to begin to heal. And so Alberta will move on, but we’ll do so carefully, will do so prudently, will do so only if it does not threaten the capacity of our health care system.”
Step 2 comes into effect on March 1, if hospitalization numbers continue to trend down. Those changes include:
- Any remaining provincial school requirements (including cohorting) will be removed.
- Screening prior to youth activities will no longer be required.
- Capacity limits will be lifted for all venues.
- Limits on social gatherings will be removed.
- Provincial mask mandate will be removed.
- Mandatory work from home removed.
The timing of Step 3 will be determined by hospitalization rates, Kenney said. This phase will see COVID-specific measures in continuing care removed and mandatory isolation becoming a recommendation only.
‘Periods of uncertainty’
Health Minister Jason Copping said the province is entering a period of transition between the pandemic and endemic stage of COVID-19.
“There will be periods of uncertainty,” Copping said. “COVID-19 will be with us for a very long time and we will see times when COVID-19 infections will be higher than normal.
“But please rest assured we will continue to closely monitor the health-care system and we will take action when necessary to alleviate pressure in future waves or spikes.”
Kenney noted several times during the news conference that the pandemic has highlighted operating deficiencies within the health-care system.
A big part of the forthcoming provincial budget, to be delivered on Feb. 24, will be about increasing the capacity of health-care system, he said.
As of the most recent update, there are 1,623 people in Alberta’s hospitals, up from 1,542 reported on Monday. There are 129 patients in ICU up from 118 patients Monday. Thirteen more deaths were reported on Tuesday.
Alberta is not alone in lifting restrictions.
Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe announced on Tuesday that Saskatchewan will end its vaccine passport policy on Monday, Feb. 14. Ontario and Quebec have also signalled their intentions to ease mandates aimed at containing the spread.
Since the pandemic began, Alberta has reported a total of 3,686 COVID-19 deaths.
There are now 28,265 known active cases in the province. That number only includes the positive results from PCR tests, which are not available to most Albertans.
Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, told the news conference that there has never been one right path to deal with COVID.
“Every path has advantages and disadvantages that must be carefully weighed,” Hinshaw said.
“As the province moves to eventually treat COVID-19 more like other infectious diseases, it is essential that each of us continue to do our part to keep those around us healthy and safe.”