As COVID-19 surges, Alberta braces for possible new restrictions

·4 min read

As COVID-19 cases continue to surge across the province, the Alberta government is expected to introduce further measures to slow the spread of the disease.

A meeting of the priorities implementation cabinet committee was scheduled for Monday afternoon to discuss options, according to the premier's office. The committee normally includes Premier Jason Kenney and the ministers of environment, finance, energy, innovation, health, justice, and children's services.

Monday's meeting also included the ministers of municipal affairs, labour, and education.

Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta's chief medical officer of health, cut her COVID-19 update short on Monday to attend the meeting but said little about what could be in store for Albertans.

"My role, again, is simply to provide recommendations," she told reporters.

Speaking outside the legislative assembly, Health Minister Tyler Shandro said the cabinet would look to Hinshaw's advice for direction.

"I can say this, that we are taking these rising numbers very seriously," he said.

COVID-19 cases have continued to rise rapidly, with new daily cases passing the 1,500 threshold for the past two days. As of Monday, Alberta had 13,166 active cases. more than any other province in Canada.

The Official Opposition has hounded the government in recent weeks to introduce further measures.

On Nov. 12, the government introduced measures in major population centres that require bars and licensed restaurants to stop serving alcohol at 10 p.m. and to close an hour later. It also prohibited group fitness programs.

Businesses would struggle through shutdown

Businesses are bracing for new restrictions. When Pigs Fly has sold gifts and trinkets from its storefront on Edmonton's Whyte Avenue for more than 25 years.

Decorations are already up at the store in preparation for the Christmas season. Manager Tara Chekowski said the next few weeks are crucial for revenue to carry through the slower months of January through March.

"This is our time of the year that we need to be open and we need to be selling items," she said.

With the possibility of new restrictions, Chekowski said the business is at least better prepared than it was at the beginning of the pandemic last spring. She intends to enter more items into the online store and hopes curbside pickup and delivery will be allowed.

"Unfortunately, if there is a shutdown we're going to have to take that in stride," she said.

Peter Evans/CBC
Peter Evans/CBC

Kyle Murray, vice dean of the University of Alberta's Alberta School of Business, said many retailers are already struggling to find a way forward through the pandemic.

"If we can shut down for a short period of time, and as a result of that save lives … that's a good outcome," he said. "And I think most businesses are OK with that."

But long-term shutdowns spurred by an increasingly dire pandemic could make things much worse, Murray warned.

"Any kind of shutdown is difficult. There's no easy decision here."

Alberta announced on Monday it would open applications for a second round of its Small and Medium Enterprise Relaunch Grant. The payment will be available to businesses in areas on the provincial watch list that have health restrictions.

Community spread in schools

A report from the Edmonton Public School Board on the impact of COVID-19 on the first quarter showed 10,500 students and 1,075 staff were recommended or required to self-isolate. Cases were found in 111 of the division's 215 schools.

"It's clear the same COVID numbers that are happening in the community are happening in our schools," said trustee Michael Janz, who requested the report in October. He said staff are doing everything they can to prevent the spread of the virus within schools.

Janz was critical of the government's communication about its future plans.

"We need as much notice as possible for whatever they are deciding," he said. "And it's not fair to 100,000 students, staff and families in Edmonton public schools to make them wait.

"Tell us now. Get us the information as soon as possible."

Colin Aitchison, press secretary for Education Minister Adrianna LaGrange, said in an emailed statement that the ministry was following Hinshaw's advice and was ready to make changes based on that advice.

"We are in regular contact with education partners, including school boards across Alberta, to deal with the challenges that arise during learning in a COVID-19 environment," he said.

Hinshaw said Monday there were active alerts or outbreaks in 304 Alberta schools — about 13 per cent of the total.

"I am confident that because of the diligence of our schools, parents, guardians and students, the number of cases in schools will remain stable," she said.