With COVID-19 cases declining, Alberta eases into Step 2 of reopening plan
Province lifts some restrictions on fitness centres and allows libraries to reopen
With COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations continuing to decline, Alberta eased some public health restrictions on Monday to allow fitness centres and libraries to partially reopen.
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney made the announcement at a news conference.
"Today, I am here to announce that Alberta is ready to safely and cautiously enter Step 2 of our path forward," Kenney said. "I want to thank every Albertan who has responsibly observed [public health] measures through Step 1 over the past several weeks to protect lives and our health-care system in the process.
"I know this has not been easy, especially with cold weather in February limiting our ability to gather outdoors. But the sacrifices Albertans have made are the reason that we're able to take another step forward today. COVID-19 is still here and it is still very much a threat to our health and our health-care system. Still, over the past few months, Alberta has made tremendous progress."
Libraries will be allowed to reopen as of Monday with 15 per cent of fire-code capacity and fitness centres will be allowed to resume low-intensity individual and group workouts for adults, Kenney said.
The premier highlighted the progress made in reducing case numbers and hospitalizations, which peaked at about 950 patients and have now dropped to 257, which is about 200 below the threshold the province set for entering Step 2.
"Our long-term care and designated-supportive living facilities, typically called nursing homes, have seen cases plummet," Kenney said. "Thankfully, active cases in our long-term care facilities have now declined by more than 95 per cent from December's peak, and the active cases in designated-supportive living facilities for seniors have dropped by over 92 per cent.
Kenney was joined at Monday's news conference by Health Minister Tyler Shandro and Dr. Deena Hinshaw, the province's chief medical officer of health.
On Feb. 8, the province moved into Step 1 of its reopening, when restaurants and bars were permitted to reopen for indoor service. At the time, Kenney said, there were 432 COVID-19 patients in hospitals, with 76 in intensive care.
On Monday, Alberta reported two more deaths and 291 new cases of the illness, with 247 patients being treated in hospitals, including 48 in intensive-care beds.
Another 35 cases of a more-contagious variant of the coronavirus were confirmed over the past 24 hours.
"All of which means that we're not out of the woods," Kenney said, "but we can continue taking small steps forward as we go into Step 2."
As a precautionary measure, possible changes to current restrictions for retail, hotels, banquets, community halls and conference centres have been delayed, the premier said, given that the province has seen a slightly increase recently in the testing positivity rate and the number of active cases.
No decision has been made about easing the remainder of those Step 2 restrictions , Shandro said, but they will not necessarily be delayed until Step 3 begins.
Those changes "could come before Step 3," he said.
WATCH | Kenney discusses province's 'careful approach' to easing restrictions
Kenney said if the numbers continue to decline and the province is satisfied the variants are under control, the measures could "absolutely" be taken as part of Step 2.
The province is taking a "careful approach" to reopening, Kenney said, and despite the fact that hospitalizations are well below Step 2 thresholds, there has been a small increase in the daily number of new variant cases.
"I know that many Albertans want us to relax many more health measures today, but we cannot and we must not allow exponential growth to start to take hold, driven by these new, more contagious variants," he said.
"To every Albertan that is worried that we're moving too slowly, and who longs for life to get back to the way things used to be, I hear your concerns, I share them. We all want to get back to that place as soon as possible. But for that to happen, the game-changer is the vaccine."
Kenney called it "incredibly frustrating and totally unacceptable" that Canada ranks 40th in the world for per-capita inoculation against the virus and again called on the federal government to catch up with the rest of the world.
"To every Albertan that is worried that we're moving too fast, I hear you as well. Please know that we're watching the spread of this virus very closely. By moving to Step 2 we are protecting both lives and livelihoods, and taking a safe step forward for Alberta."
Variants cause for vigilance
It's critical that Albertans continue to avoid indoor social gatherings, Kenney said.
Shandro said any easing of restrictions increases the chance that the virus will spread. The variants are estimated to be 30 to 50 per cent more infectious than the common strain of the virus, the health minister said.
"Now that the variants are in Alberta, we have to be even more vigilant, even as we ease measures."
The province will wait "at least three weeks" before the cabinet COVID-19 committee makes a decision about moving forward with Step 3, Shandro said.
"So please stay the course and abide by the public health measures, and remember that the lower that we bend the curve the more we can safely open up in the weeks ahead."