Alberta reports 860 cases, introduces 2-week stop to group fitness and liquor-sales curfew

EDMONTON — The Alberta government’s newest measures meant to curb COVID-19 transmission, which limit public athletic and social gatherings, are being criticized as too little. 

Premier Jason Kenney called the actions “temporary, time-limited measures to protect the health care system” during a Thursday provincial update, during which he also reported the province had counted 860 new cases of the disease and 10 more deaths.

The measures include:

  • A two-week stop to all group fitness, team sports, and group performance activities in Edmonton and surrounding areas, Calgary and surrounding areas, Grande Prairie, Lethbridge, Fort McMurray and Red Deer. The rule will be in effect Nov. 13 to 27. Group performance activities include singing, dancing and theatre groups. This rule does not apply to outdoor activities.
  • A two-week liquor-sales curfew where restaurants, pubs, bars and lounges in communities on Alberta Health Services’ enhanced status list must stop alcohol sales by 10 p.m. They must also close by 11 p.m.

Kenney, who teleconferenced in from self-isolation, said many operators in these sectors had done an excellent job of making their businesses safe to visit and work at, but that Alberta’s health care system was becoming stressed.

In the first months of the pandemic, Alberta’s hospitalizations numbered 88 with 21 in intensive care. As of Thursday, 225 Albertans with COVID-19 were in hospital, 51 of whom were in ICU beds, and 16 hospitals were dealing with active cases. In the Edmonton zone, about 30 per cent of non-emergent surgeries were postponed as a result of the numbers, officials said.

“COVID-19 is starting to win, and we cannot let that happen,” Kenney commented.

“This two-week push, I believe, is our last chance to avoid more restrictive measures that I and most Albertans desperately want to avoid.”

NON-MANDATORY RESTRICTIONS

The province is instating a voluntary ban on social gatherings in homes for all communities on AHS’ enhanced status list.

“No one wants a government tell us how many people we can have in our homes. But the alternative to voluntary action by Albertans is mandatory restrictions like in most other cases backed by fines,” Kenney told Albertans.

“And if we continue to see large, private parties that ignore these recommendations, we may have to consider enforcement action.”

Staring Nov. 13, all communities under enhanced measures must limit wedding and funeral ceremonies to 50 people. Albertans were told not to go to communities where the rule was not in place to have events instead.

As well, Alberta is asking places of worship to limit their attendance to one-third of capacity, and for employers to reduce the amount of staff who are in office at any one time where possible.

To the best of Alberta Health’s knowledge, 40 per cent of COVID-19 transmission is happening at home or social gatherings.

Comparatively, just 18 outbreaks in the last nine months have been traced to businesses in the hospitality sector, and 10 outbreaks to religious communities.

Dr. Deena Hinshaw acknowledged this was a small proportion of cases – the hospitality industry contributing about one per cent of all cases in the province – but said the activities posed a risk of spread, nonetheless.

“What we’re targeting with the measures being announced today are essentially areas of risk,” the top doctor explained.

“And we know that as community transmission grows and as our positivity rates increase in many places across the province, that when you have a group of people coming together, potentially engaging in activities like fitness activities, exercise, or singing, those are the kinds of activities that can potentially cause spread from one to many.”

The premier, however, suggested the two-week restrictions on fitness and bar settings was as much to curb disobedient behaviour by operators.

“We do know in that (hospitality) sector we have seen a growing number of businesses – they’re still a relatively small number, but still growing number of businesses – that late at night have moved their tables out of the way and essentially turned into de facto nightclubs,” he said.

Kenney added, “There are a small number of faith communities that have disregarded the public health guidelines, and this is a way of reminding them of the importance of following these guidelines.”

Responding to the new measures, the official opposition and Alberta NDP leader said the premier was “sleepwalking” Alberta into a lockdown. 

Rachel Notley called on the government to update its modelling to respond to the pandemic accurately. 

“Not from this premier or this government, but from other scientific experts in Alberta we have heard that on the current trajectory, we could be looking at 2,000 per day by the first week of December,” she said. 
“This train is speeding up and we have to find a way to slow it down while we still can.”

‘THE DISASTER THAT DOESN’T HAPPEN’

However, with 40 per cent of cases tracing to personal gatherings and households, a sociology professor at the University of Alberta wanted to see the government do more than encourage personal responsibility.

“We’re past the point where just telling people to be responsible is an adequate or even a good response to what’s going on… We’ve kind of hit saturation,” Amy Kaler told CTV News Edmonton before the news conference.

The sociologist has primarily studied social response to HIV/AIDS in south and eastern Africa, as well as North America.

Although the two viruses are very different, she says they offer some of the same patterns.

“There’s going to be a chunk of the population – and it’s amazing to watch the same thing happen here as was happening in Malawi and Uganda 25 years ago – for whom this will not be real until either they or somebody they are close to gets sick with COVID,” Kaler commented.

According to the professor, a portion of the population is personally invested in believing COVID-19 is a hoax or that public health measures go too far. Therefore, she says it is the government’s responsibility to remove or reduce their opportunity to participate in transmission – by anything from a total lockdown like France implemented, or a neighbourhood-by-neighbourhood lockdown like New York City used.

“They’re both going to be unpopular because people have this idea that we don’t like being told what to do. But some combination of those is necessary.”

Kenney said later that afternoon that preventing negative side effects of broader measures remained as important bending the COVID-19 curve.

“It’s no secret that I do not to take an approach that restricts people’s fundamental rights and freedoms, their ability to gain a livelihood. I’m concerned about the broader and social health impacts of those things.”

He said Alberta wouldn’t see something that more closely resembled a lockdown the health care system was fundamentally threatened, and reminded the public that in the spring, Alberta had set aside 2,400 acute care beds and 650 ICU, ventilator-supported beds for potential COVID-19 patients.

Without detailing what would prompt his government to call a lockdown, Kenney implied Alberta’s health care system has only opened up a “relatively small fraction” of what it was preparing for in a worst-case scenario.  

He did not say measures like B.C.’s regional measures were off the table, though.

“That’s not something I had ever imagined an Alberta government doing, but we may be left with no choice.” 

Kaler said public measures always look like an overreach.

“In fact, that’s how you know that a preventive measure was successful: is that people look back on it or at it and say, ‘Wow, that was just way too much. We didn’t need all of that.’ Because it’s the disaster that doesn’t happen,” the sociologist explained.

“Just hearing, ‘This is too much, this is going too far,’ doesn’t actually mean you’re going too far. It may mean what you’re doing is working and you are preventing the catastrophes.”

DOCTORS, HEALTH CARE UNIONS URGE ALBERTA TO TAKE SHORT, SHARP ACTION

According to the latest data, there are 8,305 active cases in the province: 3,504 in the Calgary zone, 3,387 in the Edmonton zone, and 1,400 more outside the major metropolitan areas.

In total, 307 schools or roughly 13 per cent of schools in the province are on alert or have outbreaks totalling 1,031 cases.

And, there are 366 active cases in continuing care facilities across the province. To date, 251 residents of long-term care homes have died from the disease.

On Thursday, more than 430 Alberta doctors and three major health unions urged the provincial government to invoke time-limited restrictions, including suspending indoor dining, bars, theatres and religious services like Kenney and Hinshaw later announced.

“We are extremely worried about the state of our health-care system right now,” Leyla Asadi, an infectious disease specialist and a co-author of the letter, said in an interview.

“We don’t need to go back to the lockdown of the spring right now. There are other things we can do, but unfortunately we’ve seen how this story plays out (in other jurisdictions) and lockdowns become an inevitability because the health-care systems become so overwhelmed.”

The doctors, in the letter, suggest other short-term measures: directives for people to work from home if possible, limiting contacts to those within a household or support bubble, and restrictions on group recreation and sports activities.

Three unions – the United Nurses of Alberta, the Health Sciences Association of Alberta and the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees – also signed the letter.

AUPE vice president Susan Slade said there are COVID-19 outbreaks at 38 sites where her union’s members work, and that concerns for their health and safety are growing.

“We have correctional officers who are basically prisoners now — under public health order allowed only to go home and to work,” said Slade in a statement.

“We have workers in long-term and continuing-care homes who are traumatized at the number of deaths they have witnessed among people they care about very deeply. We have staff in hospitals run off their feet and forced into overtime, because so many of their colleagues are off sick or on forced isolation.”

With files from The Canadian Press

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