Amidst a backdrop of increased restrictions and cases of COVID-19 variants, the provincial government is optimistic that outdoor festivals and events such as the Calgary Stampede will go ahead this summer.
Over 300 members of Alberta's live events industry joined Doug Schweitzer, the minister of jobs, economy and innovation, for a virtual town hall on Tuesday to discuss the outlook for the province's social calendar in the coming months.
According to Schweitzer, the Alberta government is heading into its second pandemic summer in consultation with event organizers and stakeholders in the hopes of going ahead with outdoor festivals safely.
"When it comes to outdoor events in summer, we want to make sure that we have outdoor events happening in Alberta, people engaging with each other," Schweitzer said.
"As we get into May and probably early June, you're going to start to see those health measures continue to be reduced to the point where, the premier's been very clear, he wants us to try and have a Stampede this year."
'Best and safest' Stampede coming in July, officials say
On April 6, the Alberta government reintroduced stricter health measures to counter a surge of COVID-19 variant cases.
But Kenney said at a press conference on April 10 that once vaccines outstrip the variants, "we absolutely can get back to normal this summer."
"I believe we're going to have a Calgary Stampede, we're going to have outdoor events," Kenney said.
For its part, Calgary Stampede officials told CBC News in a statement Wednesday that it is planning to go forward.
"We are committed to hosting the best and safest Stampede, July 9 to 18, and continue to work with various levels of government and health officials on specific safety measures," the statement said. "We expect to be able to share more details as we get closer to July."
Other stakeholders like Sara Leishman, the executive director of the Calgary Folk Festival, told CBC News they are engaging in "in-depth, ongoing conversations with the city and the province around the ever-changing COVID-19 situation."
"We remain cautiously optimistic and adaptable so are in the process of planning ways to safely bring live music back, in a very modified way, to Prince's Island Park this summer," Leishman said.
Modelling and consultations
Schweitzer said the province is looking to countries that are further along in their vaccination efforts — such as the United States and Israel — to see how their reopenings have unfolded amidst vaccine distribution. That has included their handling of live events and the reopening of sports venues.
"We're finding the provincial and the municipal governments to be very supportive and very collaborative," Cindy McLeod, the producer and artistic director of the Calgary Blues Festival, told CBC News.
"Because we are in the business of presenting large events safely, we're finding that they're not just sending directives, but they're actually asking for suggestions and ideas."
'Safety is uppermost in our minds'
Event organizers have created templates for safe events that included protocols such as masking and distancing that were then taken to a medical officer who helped to tweak it, McLeod said.
Those templates were presented to the government and Alberta Health Services, who were very receptive, she said.
The festival will look different, but ultimately McLeod said the plan is to go ahead with something small that can be ramped up to become larger.
"Safety is uppermost in our minds. We are reassured by not just the government — we're also collaborating with medical officers and public health doctors," she said.
However, McLeod said that ultimately what happens will hinge on the vaccine. Dr. Jia Hu, a clinical assistant professor at the University of Calgary who presented at the town hall, agreed.
Complicating matters further are the variants that are now the dominant strains in Alberta that Schweitzer said made him hesitant to "over-promise" normalcy.
And for these same reasons, infectious disease specialist Craig Jenne told CBC News that live events are still not a guarantee.
'Still too early to know'
"Unfortunately … it's still too early to know exactly what to expect, and that's because there are a couple things that are still changing that are really going to influence what happens," Jenne said.
Vaccine supply and rollout are certainly factors, but according to Jenne, uptake is also becoming an issue. Signs of vaccine hesitancy are increasing.
The other side of the equation is the virus itself is changing, Jenne said. The variants have different properties that have to also be taken into account.
Still, Alberta's chief medical officer of health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, said Tuesday that there is a path forward.
"If we have high-enough uptake of vaccines; if we can build a strong-enough wall of protection, and if we are able to turn our cases and our hospitalization numbers down, I believe that it's possible we could have large events this summer," she said.