While Alberta has been a hotbed of anti-lockdown sentiment for some time, a handful of businesses around the province have begun flouting restrictions in recent weeks.
The presence in Alberta of roughly two-dozen cases of COVID-19 variants first discovered in the United Kingdom and South Africa will delay any further relaxation of the province’s lockdown rules while officials monitor the threat the variants pose to the health-care system.
Over the weekend, Alberta identified 25 cases of the variant virus: 20 from the United Kingdom and five from South Africa. All cases but one — a case of the U.K. variant — could be linked to international travel, suggesting there could be community transmission of that variant.
Health Minister Tyler Shandro said on Monday the presence of the variants in Alberta are a “complicating factor when it comes to relaxing restrictions.”
“We need to continue to proceed cautiously,” Shandro said. “If we’re not careful, our health-care system could be in a dire situation within weeks.”
But it comes at a time of rising tensions about ongoing lockdowns. On Jan. 18, Alberta relaxed some COVID-19 rules, allowing larger outdoor gatherings and allowing some businesses, such as hair salons, to reopen. Many others, though, including in-person dining and gyms, remain closed.
The Edmonton Chamber of Commerce praised the easing at the time. In a statement, Janet Riopel, president and CEO, said it was “great news for small business,” and said they will continue to advocate for a “thoughtful phased-in approach to reopening that will benefit job creators as well as the consumers who rely on their services.”
Your safety is paramount
Other industry groups, such as the Alberta Hospitality Association, have begun agitating for something resembling a return to normalcy, or a “concrete plan” about when and how that might happen for their sector.
“With no clear end in sight and a lack of supporting data, it is difficult justifying having some industries closed while others remain open,” the association’s board of directors said in mid-January.
While Alberta has been a hotbed of anti-lockdown sentiment for some time, a handful of businesses around the province have begun flouting restrictions in recent weeks. Other organizations, including churches, have fought lockdown rules in court — so far with little success.
In Mirror, Alta., a town of around 500 people, about 45 minutes from Red Deer, the Whistle Stop Cafe opened for dine-in service over the weekend, with owner Christopher Scott ignoring a public health order to close. Although it received backlash from some, the cafe has received many messages of support, Scott wrote on Facebook.
“We hear you loud and clear, and we’ll keep fighting for our business, your business and your families,” he said. The cafe asks people to wear masks if they choose to come eat.
“We need to show some sort of support and compassion to the people in our province who believe we don’t care. We do care. We care about each and every one of our customers who walk through our doors. Your safety is paramount,” Scott said.
In central Alberta, Natalie Klein, the niece of late premier Ralph Klein, opened her hair salon in Innisfail for a day in mid-January. When threatened with fines, Bladez to Fadez tried the next day to rebrand as a pet groomer — pet grooming is an essential service. After being threatened with fines, they gave up the fight.
And In Peace River, Alta., the owner of Karen’s Home Cooking posted on Facebook on Jan. 11 that her restaurant would be open for dine-in services, in violation of health rules. “Social distances and masks NOT required. Have a wonderful day,” she wrote.
When patrons showed up to dine they were greeted by RCMP and the business was fined, according to local media reports.
Projections released Monday suggest that without public health measures the case counts could explode, as the new variants are considered more easily transmitted than the regular COVID-19 virus.
In a scenario without the COVID variants, there would be roughly 2,200 cases in six weeks, if left unchecked. If the variant is present, Shandro said the province’s projections suggest there would be more than 10,000 active cases. Within an eight-week period, the presence of the variants would lead to more than 3,600 hospitalizations, and within seven weeks would land 800 people in intensive care units.
The projections arrived after roughly one month of significant lockdowns in the province. Cases peaked in mid-December, with around 20,000 active cases, and were increasing by more than 1,000 new cases every day. Since then, they’ve plummeted to fewer than 10,000 active cases, although hospitalization rates remain high, with 637 people in hospital and 113 in ICU as of Monday.