Medicine Hat MLAs push for regional easings of COVID-19 restrictions

·4 min read

Two United Conservative MLAs are pushing for COVID-19 restrictions to be altered on a regional basis, rather than apply the same rules across the entire province.

Drew Barnes and Michaela Glasgo, who represent ridings that cover the Medicine Hat area, say the public health orders are often disproportionate to the low number of cases in their southeastern region.

They've both heard from many constituents urging them to ask for relief from some of the measures — and that message has been relayed to the premier.

"I think it's time to open up now," Barnes told CBC News. "I would ask the premier to consider this strongly."

Medicine Hat is included in the South health zone, which had 362 active cases of COVID-19 as of Thursday (2.9 per cent of the total active cases across Alberta).

Alberta Health Services data shows that the South zone has had less than five per cent of the province's total infections since the beginning of the pandemic.

Barnes says the effects the current restrictions are having on mental health, the economy and opioid overdoses are reaching a crisis point.

He wants to see a return to 15 per cent occupancy limits for places like restaurants and for sports for children to be reinstated. He says his constituents are upset that less than 45 minutes away, Saskatchewan's public health rules are looser.

"They're saying, 'We've done everything we can to keep each other as safe as possible. We don't have the cases. And we feel that a more regional approach is fair,'" Barnes said.

"We've had a lot of businesses, we've had a lot of families lose everything."

Glasgo had previously told CBC News that her constituents have shown a responsible approach to combating COVID-19.

"My riding understands just how important these public health measures are to moving forward, but they are asking for a reasonable and evidence-based approach when it comes time to lessen the restrictions," she said.

Request made to the premier

Both MLAs say they think COVID is a serious issue, but that one broad approach won't fit the specific needs in each region of the province.

The request for regional restrictions has been communicated to the premier, his COVID cabinet committee and health officials.

Premier Jason Kenney's office said the pandemic response is constantly evolving.

"The COVID cabinet committee considers a wide range of options on [a] continuous basis. Decisions made are based on the advice of Dr. [Deena] Hinshaw and her team of public health experts," spokesperson Christine Myatt wrote.

"We understand that many Albertans are frustrated with current restrictions and we thank them for their continued co-operation as we work to safeguard our health-care system."

Those restrictions will ease slightly on Monday, permitting outdoor gatherings of up to 10 people and reopening personal services like salons.

In the summer and early fall, Alberta's public health orders were regionally specific based on infection rates, but as case numbers exploded, blanket restrictions were introduced for the entirety of the province.

Dr. Jennifer Corcoran, an assistant professor in the University of Calgary's infectious diseases department, says it's too early to think about lifting the restrictions — especially with new strains of the virus at play.

"What I would not like to see happen to the province is that we get an explosion of cases right before the vaccines arrive and we have a much harder winter than we need to," she said.

"If we let the variants spread and take over, then I think we're going to prolong how the pandemic impacts our lives for a longer period of time."

Corcoran said it's possible that if different regions open first, we could see more spread there as people from outside that location travel to take advantage of lesser restrictions.

Barnes said if case numbers in the south were to spike again, he agrees it would be appropriate to tighten restrictions as necessary.

Medicine Hat saw a spike at the same time as the rest of Alberta, but currently has only 38 active cases of COVID-19 with a population of about 68,000.