Ready to reopen: Alberta set to lift almost all health restrictions by July 1
Stage 3 of provincial reopening will kick in on Canada Day, while second doses have opened up
Almost all COVID-19 public health restrictions will be lifted in Alberta on Canada Day as the province prepares to enter the final stage of its COVID-19 reopening plan.
Stage 3 of Alberta's Open for Summer plan will begin on July 1, Premier Jason Kenney announced Friday.
"The end of this terrible time is just two weeks away," Kenney said during Friday's news conference, which also saw the province kick off another round of second dose vaccine appointments.
Kenney thanked Albertans for getting vaccinated and enduring a gruelling 16 months of restrictions that he said have put many Alberta businesses on their "last legs."
"I never doubted that we would reach this milestone together, that we'd pull together as a province, as a people, and get 'er done in the true Alberta spirit," he said.
WATCH | Kenney discusses Alberta reaching reopening milestone:
The vaccine threshold required for the final stage of the province's three-step reopening plan was met on Thursday, when more than 70 per cent of eligible Albertans had received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.
"We finally have the upper hand on this virus and can safely open up our province," Kenney said.
Lower cases, fewer restrictions
Alberta currently has 2,336 active cases of COVID-19, a drop of 135 from the previous day. The province reported 124 new cases of COVID-19 on Friday and three new deaths.
The number of active cases has decreased 61 per cent since Stage 1 launched in June, Kenney said. The number of people in hospital has dropped by 45 per cent during the same time frame, he said.
For days, Alberta has been teetering on the edge of the vaccination threshold needed for the final stage of its three-step reopening plan.
As of Thursday, 70.2 per cent of eligible Albertans had received at least a single dose of vaccine.
Stage 3 will herald the lightest restrictions seen in the province in months.
A ban on indoor social gatherings and current restrictions on outdoor gatherings will be lifted. Capacity limits for businesses and places of worship will be gone. Laws mandating masks will also be rescinded.
Isolation requirements for confirmed cases of COVID-19 and some protective measures in continuing care settings will remain.
'We're going to see an increase in cases'
Dr. Noel Gibney, professor emeritus in the department of critical care medicine at the University of Alberta, said reopening now is risky.
Gibney, who also serves as co-chair of the Edmonton Zone Medical Staff Association's Pandemic Response Committee, said the province needs to carefully monitor cases and plan for the possibility of another clampdown.
He said Alberta's reopening plan was drafted before the arrival of the delta variant and fails to account for the potential impact of the highly contagious strain.
He said the rapid spread of the variant in the U.K. should serve as a warning.
Gibney expects the delta variant will become Alberta's dominant strain by the end of July and contribute to a surge of cases in September.
"Whether there is a fourth wave or a fourth bump, I think time will tell," he said on Friday.
"We're going to see an increase in cases but what that translates into is really the question."
On Friday, Kenney acknowledged the ongoing risk of exposure. He said the province would continue to monitor infection rates and watch for outbreaks.
He advised people to "use common sense and exercise personal responsibility" when enjoying their new freedoms set to arrive two weeks from now.
"Variants will emerge, the most contagious variants will become, over time, the dominant variants," he said.
"People will get infected. Some people will get sick. Regrettably, a few people likely will pass away, as has been the case forever with influenza, but we don't shut down society to deal with that kind of limited and controllable risk. We manage the risk. The vaccines give us a superpower to manage it. Let's embrace that."
More second doses
As announced Friday, an additional 983,000 Albertans are now eligible for their second shot of the COVID-19 vaccine.
Albertans who received their first shot in May can now book their second dose. Those who received their first dose in June can book their second shot as soon as four weeks have passed.
Albertans who received AstraZeneca as their first dose are encouraged to wait at least eight weeks for their second shot to ensure full protection from the vaccine.
"We're transitioning from a pandemic that changes everything about how we live to a virus we control with vaccinations and learn to live with like other infectious diseases and other health problems," Health Minister Tyler Shandro said on Friday.
More than 25 per cent of eligible Albertans have been fully immunized with two doses.
'Anxiety and disbelief' from business owners
Rob Browatzke, co-owner of Evolution Wonderlounge, is anxious to re-open his Edmonton nightclub.
He said the club opened briefly last fall but has been otherwise unable to operate since the pandemic hit, resulting in what he calls a "frighteningly massive" debt load.
"The last time our dance floor was open was March 15, 2020," he said. "That is essentially zero revenue for 16 months."
Browatzke said the bar will continue to take health precautions, and he hopes Alberta can safely re-open for good.
"It's a lot of anxiety and disbelief and an 'I'll believe it when I see it' kind of feeling," he said.
"We're trusting that this is not just a temporary thing."