EDMONTON – Alberta Premier Jason Kenney is restricting restaurants and bars to delivery or takeout and closing casinos and gyms in an effort to fight soaring COVID-19 case numbers.
He is also ordering the closure of recreation centres, libraries, theatres and personal service providers such as hair salons, barbers and nail bars.
The order comes into effect on Sunday.
Kenney is also immediately imposing a provincewide mask mandate in indoor public spaces, including workplaces, and is banning social gatherings of any size indoors or out.
Alberta had been the only province without a sweeping mask rule, although many communities were already mandating face coverings. Kenney had called it unworkable and unnecessary in remote areas and particularly punitive to farm people who already work in socially distanced settings.
“If stronger action is not taken now, we know that hundreds, potentially thousands, of Albertans will die,” the premier said at a late afternoon news conference Tuesday.
“We cannot let that happen. We will not let that happen.”
Kenney said retail stores and churches can remain open, but at 15 per cent capacity. Outdoor skating rinks and ski hills may remain active.
Existing school rules are stay in place: all students in grades 7 through 12 must learn at home while in-class learning continues for those in lower grades.
The measures are to remain in effect for at least four weeks.
Kenney spoke of the exponential growth of the novel coronavirus and said the province had “regrettably concluded” that a targeted approach to try to get case numbers down “is not a viable option right now.”
“We are now at a point where we must simply must take these frankly dramatic measures,” he said.
“It’s the only way we can get on top of this.”
The new rules are similar to sweeping shutdown orders imposed by Kenney’s government in the spring, except for allowing retailers to stay open. Kenney has said it was a mistake to impose that rule in the spring, as it helped large box stores selling essentials, which were allowed to stay open, at the expense of small businesses.
It’s the second time in two weeks that Kenney has introduced new restrictions to try to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus.
On Nov. 24, the premier introduced rules to keep businesses open but with tighter health restrictions and limits on gatherings.
Dr. Deena Hinshaw announced Monday those measures weren’t flattening the curve and tougher rules were needed.
On Tuesday, Alberta reported more than 21,000 active cases with 654 people in hospital — 112 of them receiving intensive care. Daily death counts have been in the double digits for much of the last week.
Daily infection numbers have also been over 1,000 since Nov. 24 and more than 1,600 a day for almost a week. Alberta currently has the highest rate of new infections of any province.
The United Conservative government has resisted for weeks urgings from the Opposition NDP and hundreds of physicians and infectious disease specialists that Alberta needs to severely lock down the economy and public events for a short period to avoid swamping the health-care system.
Kenney had argued for a balance of “lives and livelihoods’’ and that throwing thousands of people out of work would make things worse for the economy, community wellness and mental health.
NDP Leader Rachel Notley told the house Tuesday that the premier’s attempt to find an illusory middle path failed.
“Your focus on livelihoods has lost lives,” said Notley.
Alberta’s health system has been reassigning patients, staff, wards and spaces to free up more intensive care beds. The province is also consulting with the federal government and the Red Cross on setting up field hospitals to handle patient overflow.
Meanwhile, Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi and his Edmonton counterpart Don Iveson warned they would push the limits of their emergency powers to bring in their own added measures if the province didn’t take broader action.
A group of doctors in the Edmonton zone on Tuesday urged Iveson and city councillors to impose a short, sharp lockdown.
“We need to make clear to people that this is a very serious situation,’’ Dr. James Talbot, a former chief medical officer of health in Alberta, told city council.
“We’re chasing something that’s doubling every two weeks. It’s hard to catch it from behind. You have to get out in front.’’
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 8, 2020.
— With files from Colette Derworiz in Edmonton