Banff mayor asks visitors to hold off — for now — as Alberta starts to open up ahead of May long weekend

Alberta's relaunch strategy started on May 14, but as the long weekend looms, the mayors of several tourist-driven towns are bracing for an influx of visitors from across Alberta. 

Resort towns deploy safety strategies as residents fear tourists will spike COVID-19

Tourists and locals mix and mingle on the busy downtown streets of Banff, Alta., before COVID-19. (Vincent Bonnay/Radio-Canada )

Stage 1 of Alberta's relaunch strategy started on Thursday, allowing cities and towns across the province to begin reopening some of their shuttered businesses.

But as the May long weekend looms, the mayors of several tourist-dependent mountain towns are bracing for an influx of visitors from across Alberta — and some are even asking them to stay home for now.

Karen Sorensen, the mayor of Banff, is hoping that prospective visitors will postpone their trips until adequate safety measures have been put in place.

"Our message to Albertans is [that] we look forward to welcoming visitors back to Banff … when it's safe to do so," Sorensen told David Gray on the Calgary Eyeopener on Friday.

"We just need some time to implement the safety protocols in a way that will maintain our high-quality visitor experience in advance."

Many businesses staying closed, mayor says

Sorensen said the majority of businesses in Banff have opted to remain closed in Stage 1 of the relaunch.

"The biggest fear — and I don't think this is unique to the town of Banff — is that we reopen too quickly, and we have to shut down again. And that would be devastating to so many," Sorensen said. 

"I think most businesses are happy to err on the side of caution, perhaps have an opportunity to see what happens over the next couple of weeks before they open, and then feel much more confident opening their door to visitors."

Banff Mayor Karen Sorensen says she hopes prospective visitors will postpone their trips until adequate safety measures have been put in place. (Terri Trembath/CBC)

With borders closed to international tourists, Sorensen said she is anticipating a slower summer in Banff.

But the hope, she said, is the relaunch goes smoothly — which will allow Canadians to visit and reinvigorate the economy when the town is safe.

"It's going to continue to be devastating. We are not going to see international flights, we are not going to see bus tours, we are not going to see people coming in even from the U.S.… So, it will be a very different summer," Sorensen said.

"We certainly assume and hope that Canadians will look at an opportunity to come to the Rockies and visit us here. Our goal is to provide a safe and welcoming experience for visitors — when the Town of Banff can provide that."

Banff, Canmore testing safety protocols

Some of the safety measures Banff will be testing in Stage 1 include monitoring vehicular traffic, reducing Banff Avenue to one vehicular lane running each way, reserving more space for pedestrians to allow physical distancing, and managing lineups into stores, Sorensen said.

Canmore Mayor John Borrowman announced in a statement on Thursday that the town would be taking similar measures.

"The May long weekend has arrived, bringing with it changes that we need to prepare for … the Town of Canmore is discussing ways to keep our residents and visitors safe," Borrowman said. 

"Designating a pedestrian-only environment on Main Street is an option to create a functional space for people to safely navigate downtown as they work, shop or eat."

Visitors from Calgary, Brooks create anxiety

The measures might not be enough to reassure everyone.

Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta's chief medical officer of health, has discouraged people living in Calgary and Brooks — which are currently on slower relaunch schedules due to higher rates of COVID-19 — from visiting other towns to take advantage of services. 

But Canmore resident Heather Gibb, 70, is nervous that those who are eager for a trip to the mountains will visit anyway — and endanger the safety of the people in smaller towns.

Canmore resident Heather Gibb, 70, says her greatest fear is a spike in infections after restrictions are lifted. (Mike Symington/CBC)

"Calgary's the hot spot, and everybody from Calgary is going to come here," Gibb said.

"I understand people want to get to the mountains. I feel for people stuck in the city … but the people who live here need to stay healthy."

Gibb said she wishes stricter rules, such as mandatory face masks, would be implemented by Premier Jason Kenney and enforced in Canmore.

"My tension levels have skyrocketed," Gibb said. "It makes me really scared."

National Parks set to open June 1

Towns like Banff and Canmore will be adapting to Stage 1 of Alberta's relaunch strategy with about two weeks until national parks are set to open, on June 1.

Jonathan Wilkinson, the federal minister of environment and climate change, told the Eyeopener that the government is working with municipalities to ensure the process happens safely.

"Many of the local municipalities that exist in some of the parks, like Banff, have been very cautious in terms of how to reopen," Wilkinson said. 

"We've certainly been consulting with them. And when we do this, we want to make sure that we do it right, and in a way that's safe for folks that live there, for folks that are coming to visit, and certainly for Parks Canada staff."

With files from Mike Symington and the Calgary Eyeopener.


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