Almost all remaining public health restrictions in Alberta will be lifted on Tuesday as the province proceeds with the second phase of moving to an endemic approach to COVID-19.
The “vast majority” of restrictions will end, Premier Jason Kenney said Saturday, during a ribbon-cutting at the new Grande Prairie Regional Hospital.
“I know there are some who greet the lifting of restrictions with mixed emotions. But I want to remind you, Alberta is not alone in this approach,” Kenney said. He noted that other jurisdictions, such as the United Kingdom, are also lifting restrictions.
Under Step 2, remaining school requirements; youth screening for entertainment and sport activities; capacity limits at large and entertainment venues; operating restrictions on restaurants and bars such as liquor services; all social gathering limits; and mandatory work-from-home requirements will all be lifted.
Indoor masking will no longer be required, except, Kenney said, in “higher-risk settings,” including public transit, Alberta Health Services facilities and continuing-care settings.
The Alberta government’s three-step plan to lifting restrictions had Step 2 beginning on March 1, if hospitalizations were still trending downward.
“Fortunately, all signs here and across the world suggest that the worst of COVID-19 is behind us,” Kenney said.
As of Friday, there were 1,259 people in hospital for COVID-19, including 88 in intensive care.
Provincial data shows non-ICU hospitalizations have been generally declining for over two weeks, while the number of ICU admissions has dropped almost 30 per cent in the past week.
The data shows “no evidence at this point to suggest that our transition to normal is negatively affecting our health-care system,” Kenney said.
Health Minister Jason Copping, who joined Saturday’s announcement, noted the government will continue monitoring COVID-19 in the province.
“We are proceeding through our transition carefully and prudently, which is why we are maintaining protections for places such as continuing-care [settings] and hospitals,” Copping said.
“That said, we are confident about our approach.”
Under Step 1, which started Feb. 9, Alberta removed the restrictions exemption program — the province’s version of the vaccine passport — and “most associated restrictions.”
Capacity limits in “large facilities” and entertainment venues were extended, and food and beverage consumption was allowed in seats.
Mandatory masking requirements in schools, and for children under 13 in all settings, were removed Feb. 14.
But there were still restrictions in place for “food-serving entities” and physical distancing between people from different households was encouraged.
Lifting restrictions creates unknowns
The shift creates uncertainty for how COVID-19 will develop in Alberta, said Lynora Saxinger, a University of Alberta infectious diseases specialist.
The Omicron variant spread thoroughly in the province, despite restrictions being in place. Its reach was so extensive that the government had to limit who could get PCR tests.
Provincial data shows the seven-day PCR test-positivity rate was 22.82 per cent as of Friday. But testing limitations mean the amount of virus actually in the community is likely much higher.
“How much [restrictions] have impacted transmission is honestly an open question,” she said. “To some extent, we might actually learn more about that if we find increased transmission with reducing those public health protections.
“It’ll be really important to watch closely what actually happens and we have to be watching the right data too.”
Test-positivity rates, hospital and ICU admissions and COVID-19 deaths are reliable indicators right now, she said. If they start trending upward, the province must be prepared to implement restrictions again.
It will also be important for leaders to push messaging around why it’s important to get vaccinated for COVID-19, including receiving a booster dose, she said.
“One of the bigger risks with the pivot on all the restrictions at once is that — even though it’s not saying it — it does send a message that [COVID-19] is not a big deal anymore,” she said.
“That’s a message that we should try really hard to avoid putting out there, because it’s obviously not over and there’s a lot of different ways this could go.”
Calgary mask bylaw to end, Edmonton’s to stay
The City of Calgary said its mask bylaw will end once the restrictions are lifted Tuesday.
The city is “cautiously optimistic” about entering this stage of the pandemic, Susan Henry, chief of the Calgary Emergency Management Agency, said in a news release Saturday.
“Some of us will welcome the lifting of restrictions while others will prefer to continue wearing face coverings and following other precautions,” Henry said.
“We must be kind and compassionate toward one another, respect those personal choices and make space for everyone to move at the speed they feel comfortable with.”
The city reminded residents they must continue wearing masks until Tuesday.
Meanwhile, the City of Edmonton said on Twitter Saturday that its mask bylaw will stay in place until “further action is taken.”
The province’s easing of public health measures signals a shift to learning to live with COVID-19. We encourage Edmontonians to get vaccinated if they are not already, and continue to be kind to each other through this period of transition.” (2/2) <a href=”https://t.co/NO1a9I2w8w”>https://t.co/NO1a9I2w8w</a> <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/yeg?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#yeg</a>
The city’s website states that two conditions must be met before council will consider removing the bylaw. One of them is the rescinding of the provincial mask mandate.
The second: known active COVID-19 cases in Edmonton stays below 100 per 100,000 population for 28 consecutive days.
Provincial data shows there are 2,859 known active cases in the Edmonton health zone as of Friday.