OPINION | After going eyeball to eyeball with COVID-19, Kenney finally blinks
A reluctant premier reads the Pandemic Riot Act to Albertans, says columnist Graham Thomson
This column is an opinion from Graham Thomson, an award-winning journalist who has covered Alberta politics for more than 30 years.
After months of pleading with Albertans to take "personal responsibility" to stop the spread of COVID-19, Premier Jason Kenney has finally taken personal responsibility himself.
On Tuesday, he reluctantly announced the kind of sweeping COVID-19 restrictions he had been tersely rejecting for weeks.
He is now ordering everyone to wear a mask in public spaces everywhere in Alberta. And nobody is allowed to hold any social gatherings outside.
You can say "hi" to your neighbour walking the dog but stay two metres apart and don't dawdle. Starting Sunday, you can only get take-out from restaurants and pubs. No in-person dining. Casinos are closing as are bingo halls, raceways, bowling alleys, pool halls, fitness centres, spas, gyms, indoor skating rinks.
Retail stores can stay open but only allow in 15 per cent capacity at a time.
The list goes on. Odds are, if you enjoy doing it, it's cancelled, postponed or diminished.
As Kenney recited the new restrictions, he must have felt like he was reading the Riot Act to Albertans.
And, in a sense, he was.
As the pandemic grew in the past month from bonfire to wildfire, Kenney had tried to argue his way through the crisis by ignoring pleas from physicians, ridiculing the NDP opposition, and insisting Albertans would bring the crisis under control by taking "personal responsibility."
In the end he was done in by the might of two factors: freedom-loving Albertans who didn't take the COVID-19 virus seriously; and the COVID-19 virus that didn't take freedom-loving Albertans seriously.
Adding those two together gives you the inescapable math of a pandemic.
"The recent surge in COVID-19 hospitalizations will threaten our health-care system and the lives of many vulnerable Albertans unless further action is taken now," said Kenney.
"With the promise of a vaccine early in 2021, we can see the end of this terrible time. But all Albertans must take this more seriously than ever by staying home whenever possible, and following these new measures."
WATCH | Alberta premier says Christmas gatherings must be limited to one's own household:
Even though Kenney was speaking to all Albertans, he focused particular attention on those who will resent the new measures. They're more likely to live in rural areas, reject government interference in their lives, and preach self-sufficiency. In other words, United Conservative supporters. By refusing to introduce tougher restrictions for weeks, Kenney was bending over backwards to placate his political base.
But the inexorable math of COVID-19 has forced Kenney to demonstrate he has a spine.
"To many people, these policies, these restrictions seem unjust," said Kenney. "I've made no secret of the fact that Alberta's government has been reluctant to use extraordinary powers to damage or destroy livelihoods in this way. It is why we have stressed education together with personal and collective responsibility from the very beginning and it's why we tried to balance the protection of lives and livelihood rather than resorting to damaging measures as a first resort."
Kenney also announced more money to help small businesses survive the new measures. That is a great idea but it was a great idea when critics suggested it weeks ago, along with the very restrictions Kenney announced Tuesday.
Better late than never?
Understandably, Kenney bristled at questions from journalists about whether he might be responsible for the COVID deaths of Albertans because he didn't lock down the province sooner. Kenney said it would be a "mistake" to draw simple conclusions during such a complicated time.
But it is a question that will dog him. And NDP MLAs will no doubt be helpfully re-asking the question whenever a microphone or TV camera is within hailing distance.
"The lockdown announced today comes late," said NDP Leader Rachel Notley after Kenney's news conference. "We could have acted four weeks ago. Since then, an additional 317 people have died."
Notley will be wielding this rhetorical knife through the next election.
Kenney might be thinking "better late than never" and while that might be great when talking about filling a pothole or repairing a school roof, it's not so great when talking about enacting more precautions during a pandemic that's killing people daily.
Kenney's new restrictions will last four weeks. That will take us through the Christmas holiday and into the new year.
During Tuesday's news conference, Doug Schweitzer, the minister of jobs, economy and innovation, happily declared "a vaccine is almost here" as if the pandemic will suddenly end Jan. 5 when Alberta is scheduled to start inoculations against COVID-19.
The reality is that, because of logistics and supply issues, during the first three months of 2021 only about 10 per cent of Albertans will receive vaccinations, mainly health-care workers and the elderly.
The rest of us will have to wait and continue to wear masks, wash our hands, and practise social distancing for many more months. Perhaps by then enough Albertans will know how to practise "personal responsibility" without Kenney having to read us the Riot Act.