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Social distancing under the dome: Alberta legislature grapples with when and how to sit

The Alberta government and Opposition are trying to reach a deal on how to convene the legislature in the face of a global pandemic.

Premier wants to meet to pass emergency legislation in response to pandemic

The Alberta government and Opposition are negotiating when the legislature should sit and how many MLAs should be present during this period where public health officials are urging people to minimize contact with others. (Juris Graney/CBC)

They stood shoulder to shoulder in the legislature on Friday while Alberta's chief medical officer of health advised people to stand two metres apart.

Alberta MLAs now face the challenge of how to conduct business during a pandemic while life is anything but business as usual.

Behind the scenes, the Alberta government and Opposition NDP are trying to reach a deal on when to meet and how many people should be in the room, while trying to prevent the spread of COVID-19. 

"There are concerns we need to be abiding by the chief medical officer," Opposition House leader Heather Sweet said on Tuesday.

"For us to do that, we need to have an agreement with the government that if we do come back, that we have the ability to abide by what she's recommending."

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The legislature was granted an exemption from a provincial public health order issued March 17 prohibiting gatherings of more than 50 people.

The legislature last sat on Friday to pass urgent amendments to the Emergency Management Act. Now, MLAs are waiting to hear when the legislature will meet next.

Although House leader Jason Nixon said last week that more emergency legislation was coming, he declined to divulge what changes could be afoot.

Safe for legislature to sit, premier says

Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta's chief medical officer of health, has said large gatherings, such as a Vancouver dental conference and an Edmonton bonspiel, have been ideal environments for the rapid spread of coronavirus and surges in diagnosed cases of COVID-19.

Premier Jason Kenney said Monday that he believes it's safe for the legislature to keep meeting as needed and noted that it is important for society's basic institutions to continue functioning.

"The agreement is to operate on a limited, as-needs basis in the next several weeks until this over," he said.

Premier Jason Kenney speaks in the Alberta legislature on March 18. Kenney wants to meet to pass emergency legislation in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Alberta Legislature)

He said the Opposition and government are working on an agreement for the terms of meeting. There should be fewer than 50 MLAs and legislature staff in the chamber at once, he said.

Alberta has 87 MLAs. Only 20, including the Speaker, need to be present for it to conduct business.

The unanswered question is how to implement physical distancing under the dome.

Bare-bones parliaments

Across the country, far fewer politicians have been walking the halls of power. In Ontario last week, 26 of the 124 members of its four-party provincial parliament came to approve two urgent bills.

In B.C., about a dozen of the 87 MLAs are sitting to pass emergency legislation.

Federal parties have agreed 32 members of Parliament will convene in Ottawa to make urgent decisions.

On March 12, the legislature closed to visitors and cancelled all public events. Security staff have ferried papers and memos across the legislature floor after pages were sent home.

When they met on Friday, Alberta MLAs agreed to put aside the seating arrangement and perched at other desks to put more space between them. At last count, 12 United Conservative Party and three NDP MLAs were in self-isolation due to travel or potential exposure.

Shannon Phillips, the NDP's finance critic and MLA for Lethbridge West, said on Facebook she doesn't think the Alberta legislature should sit during the pandemic.

"A prohibition on gatherings is the law, but it is also good sense," Phillips wrote. "Exceptions should only be made for reasons of public health and basic needs. Service of the premier's ego is neither of those."

Sweet said the Opposition is willing to sit in the house to pass any legislation critical for the province to respond to the pandemic or to provide economic aid.

She said keeping the legislature open could also mean increased risk for building staff — the people who document proceedings, clean the floors and serve poutine and burgers in the cafeteria.

"Right now, it isn't about the partisanship. Right now, it's about getting legislation passed to deal with the pandemic," Sweet said. "Of course we're willing to do that, but we just have to make sure that we're not putting people at risk."

As of late Tuesday afternoon, the legislature was not scheduled to sit on Wednesday, according to Nixon's press secretary Jess Sinclair.

The spring sitting began Feb. 25 and was scheduled to run until June 4, with four weeks of constituency breaks throughout the spring.

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