Banff seeks details but lukewarm on COVID-19 curfew; other regions say no for now

·5 min read

EDMONTON — The mayor of Alberta’s Rocky Mountain resort town of Banff is looking for more details on implementing a possible COVID-19 curfew.

But Karen Sorensen questions whether such a drastic measure would even make a difference.

"Our late-night or even earlier-in-the-night activity is minimal in Banff at this point," Sorensen said Friday.

"Restaurants and bars aren't open and there just aren't a lot of people out and about."

Sorensen noted the province has promised other help, with more vaccines arriving next week along with expanded ages of eligibility.

Banff is one of a handful of regions with COVID-19 case rates so high they could apply to the province for a curfew.

The curfew was part of a suite of measures introduced by Premier Jason Kenney late Thursday to reduce high infection rates now squeezing the health system.

Curfews would be allowed where the case rate is above one in 100. Banff is just over that threshold.

The Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, which includes the city of Fort McMurray, has a rate of 1.5 — Alberta's highest. It, too, is getting more vaccines.

Wood Buffalo Mayor Don Scott said they are not requesting a curfew, adding “any (future) move in that direction would be discussed at a public meeting with public input.”

The County of Barrhead, northwest of Edmonton, with a case rate of 1.02, is not considering a curfew.

Reeve Douglas Drozd said it's a busy time of year with farmers seeding their fields and hauling cattle out to pasture, and not the time to "get in the way."

Northern Sunrise County also said it will not be pursuing a curfew, noting it has a small population spread over a wide area.

Alberta has seen well over 1,000 new cases a day for weeks and surpassed 2,000 on Thursday and again on Friday. There have been 2,082 deaths.

Total active cases are a record 21,828. There are 649 people in hospital, including 152 in intensive care.

Hospitals are cancelling non-urgent surgeries, ramping up capacity for an expected influx of patients.

Also Friday, doctors were briefed on the triage protocol should the system become so overwhelmed, life-and-death choices must be made.

Dr. Shazma Mithani, who works in two Edmonton emergency departments, said it was sobering.

"We thought we would never have to make decisions like that … who gets to have ICU bed versus who doesn't," said Mithani.

"I don't think people necessarily understand the moral distress that a decision like that has on us. Our mandate is to do the best we can for our patients. Never do harm."

Calgary emergency room doctor Joe Vipond said rising COVID numbers reflect government policy failure.

"We've avoided making the hard decisions of putting in strong restrictions and kicking the can down the road and this is what you get — you get exponential growth."

Kenney as late as Monday rejected implementing new restrictions, saying the existing ones would be fine if people followed them, adding that any new rules would likely be ignored by a COVID-fatigued populace.

But on Thursday, Kenney said there would be new rules for hot spots, saying health restrictions are critical to bending the curve.

The rules apply to areas seeing more than 3.5 cases for every 1,000 residents along with having at least 250 active cases. Those regions include Edmonton, Calgary, Grande Prairie, Red Deer, Fort McMurray and Lethbridge.

For at least the next two weeks, all students in grades 7-12 will study remotely.

All indoor fitness activities are cancelled. Indoor recreation facilities must close.

The Opposition NDP said moving classes home on such short notice is another example of a government writing pandemic policy on the fly, with parents and caregivers paying the price.

NDP critic Shannon Phillips said Kenney is trying to mollify anti-lockdown critics in his base and in his United Conservative caucus at the expense of Albertans’ health.

“That is, I think the most stunning abrogation of the public interest from Mr. Kenney and shows the weakest of leadership,” said Phillips.

Kenney faces severe criticism from almost half his backbench legislature members for the existing restrictions, which include no indoor social gatherings and sharp curtailment at stores and worship services.

In early April, 18 of them publicly challenged the rules as an unnecessary infringement on personal freedoms.

One of the dissidents, Cypress-Medicine Hat member Drew Barnes, issued a public letter Friday objecting to the new rules.

Barnes, in an interview, said the province has failed to provide any information to justify to him or to his constituents why the rules need to be applied to low-case areas.

“My constituents have been calling for more transparency,” said Barnes.

Phillips said Barnes is endangering public health and called for him to be fired from the UCP caucus. Barnes said he has the confidence of those who elected him.

Kenney has refused to sanction the dissidents, saying they don’t speak for the government and that he respects free speech.

Kenney also said Thursday renewed efforts for front-line restaurant staff to check and ensure those dining on patios are all from the same household, as per health rules.

Ernie Tsu, owner of Trolley 5 Restaurant and Brewery in Calgary, said they want more details to make sure wait staff aren't overburdened.

"It's up to us as owners and managers to ensure that we're not putting them in harm's way or into a situation that they're having to ask or dig for people's IDs,” said Tsu.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 30, 2021

Dean Bennett and Lauren Krugel, The Canadian Press