Alberta’s highly-controversial proof-of-vaccination system expires as the clock strikes midnight Wednesday, Premier Jason Kenney announced Tuesday amid accusations that he was playing politics with public health measures.
Rules that require students to wear masks in Alberta schools will end on Monday, and children under 12 won’t have to wear masks anywhere starting then.
Kenney said his “careful and prudent” plan, which was approved by Alberta’s COVID cabinet committee, lays out a path to “move on from a widespread pandemic response, to get our lives back to normal.”
Restrictions have done the job of getting more people vaccinated, but Kenney said those increases have now stopped.
The premier also talked about how pandemic rules have “inflamed” disputes amongst Albertans and “disrupted and even destroyed livelihoods.”
“We’ll never be able to do a full accounting of the extent of the pain and hardship that restrictions have caused,” Kenney said.
The premier added that many countries, states, and provinces are also removing restrictions as Omicron case numbers fade.
“We cannot remain at a heightened state of emergency forever. We have to begin to heal, and so Alberta will move on. But we’ll do so carefully, we’ll do so prudently, we will do so only if it does not threaten the capacity of our healthcare system,” Kenney said.
Entertainment venues, like Rogers Place and Scotiabank Saddledome, will be able to start selling food and drinks again, as long as customers consume those items while seated.
Rules on closing times, alcohol service times, table capacity in restaurants, and interactive activities remain in place.
Capacity limits on many venues expire at midnight except for facilities with a capacity of 500-1,000, which will be capped at 500. Larger facilities with a capacity of more than 1,000 will still be limited to 50 per cent.
A provincial work-from-home order will expire on March 1, along with the provincial mask mandate and capacity limits for all venues. All limits on social gatherings and cohorting rules in schools will be removed at the same time.
The province still has not determined a date for removing COVID-19 rules in continuing care homes, and it’s still not decided when mandatory isolation requirements will become recommendations only.
Kenney announced the Restrictions Exemption Program on Sept. 15, the same day that he apologized for loosening previous restrictions too soon.
Kenney enthusiastically announced the “Best Summer Ever” reopening plan in June, but by mid-September restrictions were back as the premier declared a State of Public Health Emergency as a Delta-driven fourth wave was spiking.
The premier recently said that a plan to remove restrictions would likely come “by the end of March.” Five days later, he changed the timeline when he said he hoped to relax measures this month.
Last Thursday, a United Conservative Party statement said the premier will begin lifting restrictions “within days.”
During the same Tuesday announcement, Alberta’s Health Minister Jason Copping stopped short of promising restrictions that were gone for good.
“We will continue to closely monitor the healthcare system and we will take action when necessary to alleviate pressure in future waves or spikes,” Copping said.
‘BEING BENT TO THE WILL OF CRIMINALS’
The opposition NDP said Kenney was bowing to the protesters who blocked a Canada-US border crossing in southern Alberta.
“The sight of an elected government being bent to the will of criminals should be of grave concern to everyone regardless of their political beliefs,” NDP Leader Rachel Notley said Monday.
Pundits accused the premier of playing politics by prematurely dumping restrictions.
“All you have to do is look at the timeline,” Duane Bratt from Mount Royal University said last week. “It is not about COVID, it is not about health, it is about politics.”
“It certainly gives the impression that Mr. Kenney is caving to the far right, rural fringes of his political base,” Keith Brownsey, also from Mount Royal University, said Thursday.
Kenney faces a leadership review on April 9 in Red Deer, and several of his UCP MLAs were calling for him to end the REP immediately.
He denied that his government was negotiating with, or changing restrictions because of the protesters. He again listed off a number of jurisdictions that are also relaxing rules.
“None of that has anything to do with a few trucks parked at the Coutts border crossing. All of it has to do with the fact that the disease is changing, and so the approach that we take to manage is changing as well,” Kenney argued.
Edmonton’s Mayor Amarjeet Sohi called on Kenney to keep restrictions in place, arguing it was “too soon” to start removing them.
Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer of Health said last week that although new cases and hospitalizations appeared to be falling, it was still too early to shift to an endemic response.
Dr. Deena Hinshaw reported 1,623 people in hospital with COVID-19 Tuesday, including 129 in intensive care, and 13 people died in the past 24 hours.
“This change will take time,” Hinshaw said on Thursday. “Our acute care system is still under strain today. We need to continue to protect it.”
Unvaccinated Albertans remain several times more likely to experience severe outcomes from COVID-19, including hospitalization and death, compared to those with two or more doses.