'Truly near the end': Alberta announces 3-stage reopening plan linked to vaccinations, hospitalizations
EDMONTON -- If COVID-19 vaccination numbers continue to go up and hospital admissions down, Alberta could be fully reopen in July.
The province will reopen in three phases based on the two rates, Premier Jason Kenney announced Wednesday.
The first stage will begin June 1, two weeks after Alberta marked the milestone of immunizing half of its eligible population 12 and over with at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine. The second part of this trigger is for Alberta to have fewer than 800 total hospitalizations. According to the latest data, there were 565 Albertans in hospital with COVID-19.
So, across the province starting June 1, outdoor gatherings of up to 10 people, outdoor patio dining by members of the same household, and personal and wellness service appointments can all resume.
As well, wedding ceremonies will be allowed to have 10 people (including the marrying parties), and funeral services are permitted to host 20.
Retail service capacity will move back up to 15 per cent of fire code capacity, too.
"Today, we are truly near the end of this thing. We are leaving the darkest days of the pandemic behind and stepping into the warm light of summer," Kenney said.
Masking and physical distancing rules will remain in place.
Worship service capacity will be increased to 15 per cent on May 28.
STAGE 2 & 3
The government expects to move to Stage 2 in mid-June and Stage 3 at the end of that month or early July.
Each stage will start two weeks after another vaccination milestone:
- Stage 2 after 60 per cent of Albertans 12 and older have had at least one dose and hospitalizations remain below 500;
- Stage 3 after 70 per cent of the eligible population has had at least one dose.
Currently, 57.7 per cent of eligible Albertans have received at least one dose of vaccine. The province stands 76,000 doses away from Stage 2. With some 90,000 appointments booked for Wednesday and Thursday, Kenney said the target could be hit within days and Stage 2 could begin as early as June 10.
"Things will really start to look and feel like normal again once we reach this stage."
Stage 2 will see gathering limits begin to decrease and indoor capacity expanded again in a number of public environments, including gyms, libraries and movie theatres. The work-from-home order will be lifted but remain a recommendation. Outdoor gatherings – including events like concerts and festivals – will be capped at 150 people, except grandstands will be limited to one third of seating capacity.
All restrictions – except isolation requirements for positive cases and some protections in continuing care and hospital settings – will be lifted in Stage 3, when 70 per cent of the eligible province has received at least one dose.
LENGTH OF RELAXED RULES DEPENDENT ON SECOND DOSE
The Alberta NDP and Official Opposition criticized Kenney's plan for moving faster than other provinces, saying that was one of few ways to assess Alberta's reopening approach without more data.
"Other provinces are moving more carefully and with more common criteria and Alberta's are different. And so I worry," NPD Leader Rachel Notley told media on Wednesday, noting Ontario won't open indoor dining before 70 per cent of its adult population is vaccinated with one dose and 25 per cent with two doses, and large outdoor Quebec events will have to bubble audiences by groups of 250.
Doctors like Edmonton Medical Staff Association co-chair Noel Gibney and former Chief Medical Officer of Health Jim Talbot worry, too.
"It's not a race as to which province can do this the fastest," Gibney said. "We will have, I think, a pretty good summer, but I think we're setting ourselves up for a significant problem in the fall."
"We're not going with the slow, cautious kind of relaxation," Talbot said. "We're just gonna say, 'Infect as many people as possible.'"
If vaccination and infection trends continue positively in Alberta, Edmonton's K-Days and Calgary Stampede could happen in July and August without any restrictions.
Notley called Calgary Stampede a symbol of summer in Alberta, but said, "Doors wide open, masks not necessary, yeehaw, let's invite a hundred thousand people to the fairgrounds, all on the same day? That is not a thing you're seeing in other jurisdictions."
She pointed to Kenney's fallen public approval rating: "So one can speculate."
The government said it will be monitoring the reopening plan as it moves forward and could pause it to "respond to COVID-transmission trends at regional or provincial levels."
Whether the rules stay relaxed depends on the progress to get Albertans fully immunized, Kenney and Health Minister Tyler Shandro added.
"Our public metric of first dose vaccines at 70 per cent of eligible population has beneath it a deeper analysis of population protection. We acknowledge that you don’t get full protectiveness out of a first dose, but we also have to factor in the strong protection that about 14 per cent of the population has through prior infection and the antibodies they got, as well as the nine percent of the eligible population that have second dose," Kenney told reporters on Wednesday, noting second-dose appointments would open up once first-dose demand lowered.
The scene was reminiscent of the podium Kenney stood at two years earlier as premier-elect, but where his podium once read "open for business," Wednesday's stand read "open for summer," and instead of a promise to the public, Kenney and Shandro asked for a commitment.
The health minister said, "If you're protected, be public, be proud about it. Talk about how vaccination will move us out of the pandemic and allow us to once again see the people and do the things that we love."
Kenney added: "This is our chance.
"Alberta's open for summer plan puts the power in each and every Albertan."
Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw was not available for comment until her Thursday COVID-19 update.