Charitable gaming on ice with provincial reopening stalled

·6 min read

Rising COVID-19 case counts, variant spread and hospitalizations in Alberta have prompted the province to delay the next phase of its reopening plan, putting on hold the reopening of casinos, racing centres and bingo halls, as well as relaxed restrictions on indoor gatherings, movie theatres and places of worship, among others.

The continued closure of casinos means charitable organizations that rely on casino nights to help fund their programming will just have to continue waiting.

Carmen Horpestad, executive director for the LoSeCa Foundation in St. Albert, said their casino night usually brings in anywhere from $5,000 to $20,000 and they rely on it for their programming. The organization gets just one casino night every three years, with their next one scheduled for 2022, but Horpestad said with the amount of non-profits that have missed their turn due to closed casinos, she isn't sure if LoSeCa's next date will be pushed back to make up for the shutdown.

"We rely on everything that we get from them. We rely on all our fundraising," Horpestad said.

"Even though our date isn't set till 2022, if we push everyone back, that means that we can't count on that money."

Heather Holmen, spokesperson for the Alberta Gaming, Liquor and Cannabis Commission (AGLC), said how charitable gaming will proceed is up in the air.

Since table games were cancelled last spring and again in November, charitable gaming nights have been cancelled and Holmen said right now they are just waiting to see when table games can start again.

"Once we get an indication of when they'll resume, we'll work to start rescheduling," Holmen said.

The spokesperson said even when table games can resume, some charities may not feel comfortable hosting a night while COVID-19 is still around and may struggle to recruit volunteers to run their events. She added even if casinos had been able to open on Monday, it isn't known if table games would have been allowed to proceed.

"It totally is up in the air and it's completely dependent on a number of variables – when table games will resume, which charities are interested in participating in the events, and how many are willing to proceed forward, thereby potentially pushing back the dates for other charities," Holmen said.

In the 2019-20 year, charities raised $321 million through charitable gaming nights. Without those nights, Holmen said the impacts will be felt through the organizations.

On Monday, Alberta Minister of Health Tyler Shandro said due to the recent case numbers and the amount of people in the hospital, the province will not continue to ease restrictions.

"Moving to Step 3 can be considered only when hospitalizations for COVID patients are under 300 and declining. Hospitalizations must be on a clear downward trajectory if we are to enter any new step, just like they were when we entered Step 1 and Step 2 earlier this year,” Shandro said.

"Today, while hospitalizations are indeed below 300, they've risen in recent days. The decline that we saw in January and early February has stopped. Alberta now sits at 280 COVID hospitalizations, which is a rise of 16 from a week ago.”

Shandro said it would be unfair to ease restrictions only to reinstate them a few days later when hospitalizations rise again above 300. Based on current transmission rates, the province expects that mark to be hit within the week.

Right now, there are 280 people in the hospital, with half of those under the age of 65, a group that hasn’t yet been vaccinated. Some 90 per cent of the 48 people in intensive care are under 65.

The province reported another 456 cases of COVID-19 on Monday, with 7,500 tests run and a positivity rate of 6.1 per cent. There were five deaths reported to Alberta Health on Monday.

Cases in Alberta have been climbing again in recent weeks, with new cases topping 500 every day since the middle of last week. The number of new cases is dragging up active cases in the province, with active cases hitting 6,176 on Monday. Hospitalizations have gone up for the past seven days.

The positivity rate in the province is growing along with the amount of cases spreading in the province.

“Our cases are rising and the spread is increasing,” Shandro said.

In the last week, the R-value – the number of infections caused by a person infected with COVID-19 – for the province is sitting at 1.14, with Calgary coming in at 1.23. Edmonton has an R-value of 1.13 and the rest of Alberta has an R-value of 1.05.

Cases in St. Albert have been rising as well. The city hit a low of 18 active cases on March 4, but that has grown to 51 as of Monday. The city has now seen more than 2,000 cases since the beginning of the pandemic.

COVID-19 variants are also spreading more rapidly in the province, with 110 new cases of the variant of concern diagnosed in the past 24 hours, bringing variants to 16 per cent of total cases diagnosed in the province, up from 10 per cent at the beginning of March.

“Perhaps the biggest issue is the number of variants of concern are also rising in the province,” Shandro said.

"We saw in November, as well as in December, what can happen if things get out of control, and just how quickly that can happen."

Alberta Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw said right now Albertans need to continue to follow public health orders to stop the virus from spreading in the province.

“It is important that every one of us understand the power that our actions have.”

Hinshaw said in the coming weeks Albertans have to make choices to protect our communities and make sure to follow the spirit of the rules and not look for loopholes.

“COVID-19 is still very much with us," Hinshaw said.

“The reality is, once we hit a growth phase of this virus, our numbers will not stand still.”

Hinshaw said cases are rising due to a few trends, including the rapid spread other variant of concern first identified in the United Kingdom, B 1.1.7 in households because of how contagious it is.

Another trend driving an increase in cases is social gatherings. Hinshaw said the virus can spread rapidly in any situation when public health measures are not being followed.

Jennifer Henderson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, St. Albert Gazette