Coronavirus variants could alter phased reopening plan, Kenney says
'If the variants take over, we might have to go back to a harder policy than early December'
Premier Jason Kenney told a telephone town hall Wednesday night that coronavirus variants could make it harder for the province to ease further restrictions in the near future.
Although the province is ready to move forward with its step 1 reopening next week, Kenney was blunt about the potential effect of variants.
He said in recent conversations with restaurant owners he made the situation clear.
"I can't guarantee you we can keep you open if we go there because of these variants," Kenney said. "If the variants take over, we might have to go back to a harder policy than early December."
Kenney said the business owners he spoke with said they would shut down again if needed, but are eager to get back to work.
Business owners and stakeholders joined the telephone town hall Wednesday night to weigh-in on the province's new phased reopening plan. On the call were members of the hospitality industry as well as owners of gyms, dance studios and others concerned about athletes and access to extracurricular activities.
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Kenney was joined on the call by Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta's chief medical officer of health, and Doug Schweitzer, Minister of jobs, economy and innovation, as members of the business community expressed concerns about the province's plan to reopen some businesses and not others.
Last week the province announced a phased reopening plan to lift some health measures, with benchmarks based on hospitalizations. Kenney said the hospitalization number will be based on a weekly average, since day to day there can be fluctuations.
The plan will also look at case numbers and positivity rate before moving to the next step.
Step 1 will see the easing of restrictions on school-related indoor and outdoor children's sport and performance activities, indoor personal fitness places (one-on-one and by appointment only), and on restaurants, cafes and pubs.
While step 1 will allow indoor dining to resume, there will still be restrictions in place like distanced tables and rules around who and how many people can be seated together. There is also no bar service or live entertainment allowed and alcohol can't be served after 10 p.m.
"It's the socializing that is the problem, and you guys are in a social business but now we're giving you some pretty tight perimeters here," Kenney said.
Casinos aren't allowed to reopen until step 3, but Vik Mahajan, CEO of the River Cree Resort and Casino, told the town hall he wants to see them included in step 2.
"We have invested capital and human resources to create a safe environment and in addition have added security and surveillance to enforce all protocols. We have thousands of associates still laid off."
Kenney said he recognizes a case can be made for a faster opening of casinos, but the province needs to continue to try and prevent spread of COVID-19.
Gyms and fitness
Gyms, dance studios and other fitness centres have been closed for weeks and won't be able fully resume operations until step 2, though one-on-one instruction will be allowed under step 1.
Hinshaw said there has been ongoing conversations between the province and members of the fitness industry. While group classes and team sports won't be allowed any time soon, the province may consider exemptions for elite athletes, like those training for the Olympics.
"That work is underway," Hinshaw said. "[We're] looking at how we might be able to do that safely, to ensure that that small group of individuals who are at the top tier of their sport may be able to return to training."
Hinshaw was asked about the possibility of taking a regional approach, she said that opening one zone tended to drive activity to the open areas and can increase the risks of community spread.
"I think it's really important that we remain with a provincial approach until we are able to reduce this burden on our healthcare system across the province."