Work on Alberta Legislature pandemic plan started in early January

Staff at the Alberta Legislature started working on a plan in early January about how to manage a possible COVID-19 outbreak among staff and MLAs in the assembly building in Edmonton. 

Updated plan includes alternative legislature sites, increased testing in face of outbreak

NDP Leader Rachel Notley held a "socially-distanced" scrum in the rotunda of the Alberta legislature earlier this month. (Michelle Bellefontaine/CBC)

Staff at the Alberta Legislature started working on a plan in early January about how to manage a possible COVID-19 outbreak among staff and MLAs in the assembly building in Edmonton. 

The legislature has an existing contingency plan for what would happen if a fire or other devastating event forced MLAs to meet outside the assembly.

Nathan Cooper, Speaker of the Alberta Legislature, said the update started after Clerk Shannon Dean and staff at the Legislative Assembly Office (LAO) said the existing plan should include a pandemic scenario just in case. 

"There was lots of concern about what would happen if there was massive outbreaks like we've seen in other jurisdictions and how that would impact the operations of the legislature," Cooper said in an interview Friday. 

Protocols would be triggered if an MLA, staff member or journalist in the press gallery tests positive for COVID-19.  

Testing would be ramped up for everyone who works in the building, and Alberta Health Services contact tracers would get involved, Cooper said. 

Speaker Nathan Cooper and staff at the Alberta legislature started working on a pandemic plan in early January. (Wallis Snowdon/CBC)

Cooper says a team of Alberta Infrastructure staff and private contractors is available to disinfect the entire building, including the legislature chamber, if required. 

Although Cooper says the disinfecting could happen overnight, the plan includes a list of sites for temporarily relocating the legislature, including settings outside the Alberta capital. 

"We considered options like if there was a significant outbreak in the city of Edmonton," Cooper said. 

"In the early days of the planning, we had identified other facilities around the province where we could operate should we need to."

The legislature has met sporadically for a few days at a time since mid-March when many businesses and public buildings closed to prevent the spread of COVID-19. 

The first Alberta case was announced on March 5.

Lower-than-projected hospitalizations convinced Alberta to start a staged reopening of select businesses to start this month. But health officials are still bracing for a possible second wave of infections this fall. 

The spring session is scheduled to resume Wednesday with MLAs returning to regular four-day weekly sessions the following week. The revised sitting calendar has MLAs meeting throughout June and July. 

Members will continue to observe social distancing protocols, sitting at least a seat apart from each other, and rotating in and out to keep numbers down inside the chamber. Cooper said masks would be available for anyone who wants to wear one. 

The legislative assembly building remains closed to the public. 

Virtual meetings 

While she feels it is possible to meet safely, NDP Official Opposition Leader Rachel Notley says the government should remember that not every MLA can be in the room when legislation is voted on. 

"What that means is that we still need to be focusing on things that are immediate and urgent to Albertans and not on long since forgotten political agendas," Notley said on Thursday. 

"People's representation will be somewhat challenged because we can't have an assembly that is full of MLAs." 

Cooper said some research was done in the early days of the pandemic on the possibility of meeting virtually using video conferencing software just in case the province's outbreak was widespread and prolonged. 

MLAs on Alberta's standing committee on public accounts have met several times using Skype or telephone. 

However, the committee has 12 members; the legislative assembly has 87. Legislatures and parliaments that have met virtually have found it challenging to both maintain decorum and accommodate larger numbers using existing technology.

Cooper says there are overarching questions about how virtual sittings could impact the public's trust in their democratic institutions. 

"Should members of the legislative assembly need to vote in person?" Cooper asked. "Can they vote remotely? How do we ensure the most basic fundamentals of our democracy?"