Edmontonians ease into life without COVID-19 health restrictions

As Edmonton venues and businesses threw the doors open to clients on the first day with almost no provincial health restrictions, it wasn’t quite like time travelling to before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Some business owners happy to toss masks and distancing requirements

Union Hall owner and concert promoter Greg Beshard is anxious to invite customers back for a series of concerts beginning July 1. The venue has been closed since March 2020, when cases of COVID-19 first appeared in Alberta. (Nathan Gross/CBC)

Just hours after most of Alberta's public health restrictions disappeared, Greg Beshard was preparing to welcome a crowd of 800 people to Union Hall.

After 16 months of nixed concerts, the venue's owner and concert promoter was expecting a sellout crowd at a weekend block party. Revellers would waste no more time waiting to feel the thump of the bass in their chests as DJs and hip hop artists took the stage.

Beshard started planning a month ago, as soon as Premier Jason Kenney announced the reopening stages.

"We just kind of went out on a limb and said, 'We're ready to be back,' " Beshard said Thursday. "Restrictions say that this is possible. We crossed our fingers, and, we're here."

As Edmonton venues and businesses threw the doors open to clients on the first day with almost no provincial health restrictions, it wasn't quite like time travelling to before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Union Hall plans to limit capacity to around 70 per cent at first, while patrons grow more comfortable with crowds. Staff will sanitize tables every 30-to-40 minutes, he says. Hand sanitizer will be ubiquitous. Masks are optional.

Across the road, Melissa Yammine couldn't wait to put on lipstick for her first maskless day at work in many months.

The co-owner of Baba Halal Grocery and Bakery was delighted to take distancing markers off the floor of her shop, and remove signs telling people to stay apart.

Yammine said although she is a bit worried about the new reality, she refuses to live in fear.

"I think it's just a symbol, if anything, of getting back to how things were before COVID, and having those memories come back, and feel like life is getting back to normal, finally," she said of her employees setting aside their masks.

She is happy to say goodbye to capacity limits, which put business owners in the position of sometimes asking customers to wait before shopping.

Masks, safety measures still required in airports

At a news conference Wednesday, Finance Minister Travis Toews said Alberta's July 1 reopening is critically important to the province's economic recovery.

What would also help the local economy is if the federal government would allow international flights back to the city, Edmonton International Airport spokesperson Traci Bednard said.

The number of departing flights is increasing, and about 1,000 more people are now flying out daily compared to earlier in the pandemic, she said.

Passengers will still need masks. Federal regulations require they mask up while checking in, passing through security, and boarding and riding the plane.

Also proceeding cautiously are some businesses in the Ritchie Market area.

Some Edmonton businesses, like Biera restaurant in Ritchie, have kept some safety precautions in place, even though many public health restrictions have been lifted. The restaurant has plexiglass barriers between some diners and staff have chosen to continue wearing masks. (Nathan Gross/CBC)

Staff at Biera restaurant and Blind Enthusiasm brewery agreed they wanted to stay masked for now, owner Greg Zeschuk said.

He knows customers differ in how comfortable they feel in public, and he's trying to give options to those who want to cluster in a group or keep their distance.

"We kind of kept things a little spaced out. We've kept some screens, optionally for people. Really, we're trying to serve everyone," he said.

Next door at Transcend Coffee and Roastery, customer Hannah Dugan kept her mask in place while buying a cold drink.

She said she's glad people now have a choice of whether to wear them. She's still awaiting her second vaccination, which is why she opted to keep hers on.

"I guess it just almost doesn't feel real yet," she said. "When I see more people not wearing them, I might get more comfortable."


Janet French is a provincial affairs reporter with CBC Edmonton. She has also worked at the Edmonton Journal and Saskatoon StarPhoenix. You can reach her at janet.french@cbc.ca