Edmonton residents, leaders react to Alberta plan to lift pandemic restrictions

The Alberta government’s three-step plan to remove pandemic health measures is being met with mixed reactions from Edmonton residents.

'At some point, things had to be lifted,' says Dr. Raiyan Chowdhury

Alberta's restrictions exemption program has ended, meaning people wanting to dine in at restaurants or attend concerts will no longer have to scan QR codes to gain entry. (James Chaarani/CBC)

The Alberta government's three-step plan to remove pandemic health measures is being met with mixed reactions from Edmonton residents.

The Restrictions Exemption Program (REP) has now ended, along with capacity limits for smaller venues. Next week, masks will no longer be required for children in schools and if the number of hospitalizations continues to fall, the provincial mask mandate will be removed. 

When announcing the plan on Tuesday night, Premier Jason Kenney said the threat of COVID-19 to public health no longer outweighs the negative effects of health restrictions on society. 

"Now is the time to begin learning to live with COVID," he said.

Kenney said restrictions have divided families and friends, but their removal has also been divisive.

'Too much, too fast'

Edmonton Public Schools board chair Trisha Estabrooks said on Twitter that the decision to remove masking in schools later this month is "too much, too fast."

She said school divisions were not consulted on the change.

"With low vaccination rates in kids age 5–11 this definitely feels like we are taking away a key layer in the approach to keep students and staff as safe as possible," Estabrooks wrote. 

Some doctors have said the REP is still needed and expressed caution about removing restrictions before hospitalization levels have decreased more.

Dr. Raiyan Chowdhury, a critical care specialist at the Royal Alexandra Hospital and an assistant professor at the University of Alberta, told CBC News he was surprised restrictions were removed so quickly, but is not opposed to the government's plan.

"To some extent it may be early, but at some point, things had to be lifted," he said.

He said restrictions like the REP were designed to bend the curve and prevent hospitals from becoming overwhelmed, but they have now run their course and no longer seem to be motivating people to get vaccinated.

Dr. Raiyan Chowdhury says the REP has run its course. (Raiyan Chowdhury)

Now it will be up to individuals to weigh the risk of going to places like restaurants, he said, and considering breakthrough infections, the REP was not fully protecting immunocompromised people anyway.

"I know this sounds scary to people, but the amount of impact it actually has is up for debate," he said, adding that the REP would have worked better had it required three vaccinations, not two.

Good news for music industry

Christine Rogerson, interim executive director of Alberta Music, a non-profit industry association, said the removal of restrictions was good news for some in the industry, but large venue operators will have to wait until they can reach full capacity again.

"Our sector has taken on an astronomical amount of personal debt and business debt to try to stay the course," she said. 

"Nobody is running into the streets celebrating yet, but they'll be sitting down cautiously and looking at starting to make plans and hoping that we won't have to shift focus again."

Mall worker ready to move on

Joel Hopchin, who works as a slide patroller at West Edmonton Mall's World Waterpark, said he is looking forward to not having to wear a mask at work every day. 

Joel Hopchin, who works at West Edmonton Mall, says he supports Alberta removing pandemic restrictions. (Madeleine Cummings/CBC)

He said masks make communicating with patrons harder and wearing one for hours in a warm and humid environment has been uncomfortable.

"I just can't wait for them to be gone," he said. 

Hopchin said he supports the removal of other restrictions too, including capacity limits at large events.

"I'm a diehard football fan, so to have those mandates lifted eventually will be phenomenal," he said.

"We'll be able to get more fans in the stands, which will be awesome."