Alberta bans indoor gatherings; introduces new restrictions for schools and businesses

EDMONTON — Alberta junior and high school students are being sent home to learn and the province is introducing stricter gathering limits in hopes of curbing the spread of COVID-19.

On Tuesday, Premier Jason Kenney announced the new public health measures and enacted a state of public health emergency as the province reported 1,115 new cases of COVID-19, its smallest day-over-day increase since Nov. 19.

The province entered a state of public health emergency in March, but decided in June to let the status expire when its infection rate slowed. 

In a state of public health emergency, the provincial government and chief medical officer of health have different powers for crisis response. 

Kenney said the measures were developed by a cabinet committee that met for eight hours on Monday and heard recommendations from Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw.

SOCIAL GATHERINGS

Effective immediately, all indoor social gatherings – which Kenney called “the key reason why COVID-19 is winning” – are banned across the province.

Outdoor gatherings are limited to 10 people.

Weddings and funerals will be limited to 10 people. Receptions are prohibited.

Those who live alone are allowed to have two non-household close contacts.  

The premier said Alberta police would enforce the new rules and that the province was looking for ways to have peace officers deliver fines as well. Violations could result in a ticket up to $1,000 or a $100,000 penalty through the court system.  

“We just felt we had no option given that 40 per cent of traceable cases connect back to private social activity,” Kenney commented.

This rule does not apply to home-based services like health care and child care.

Alberta’s emergency alert system will send a notification with the details of the rule to all smartphones later in the week.

A previous guideline that places of worship in communities on Alberta Health Services’ enhanced status list cap their attendance to one third of what is allowed under fire code is now mandatory.

BUSINESS

Starting Friday, event venues in enhanced-status areas will be closed for in-person business. This includes banquet halls, conference centres, trade shows, concert venues, community centres and indoor play spaces and grounds.

All levels of team and individual sport must have an exemption from Hinshaw to continue.

Retail and service business services in enhanced-status areas will be allowed to remain open but must restrict their capacity to 25 per cent or a minimum of five customers, whichever is higher. This includes grocery, pharmacy, clothing, technology, hardware and automotive stores.

Entertainment and event businesses fall under this category, too: theatres, libraries, museums, galleries, bingo halls, water and amusement parks, as well as fitness, recreation and activity centres. No group fitness classes, training or team practice is allowed, although facilities may remain open to broadcast virtual classes.

Restaurants, bars, pubs and lounges also can stay open by following public health orders. Kenney said any Albertans dining out together must be of the same household, tables can seat a maximum of six, and there must be no movement between tables. If an Albertan lives alone, they can eat out with their close contacts. No other services like entertainment and games are allowed in these businesses, and the previous rule mandating liquor sales stop by 10 p.m. and businesses close by 11 p.m. has been extended.
Casinos are not allowed to offer table games. They must follow the same liquor sales and closure rules.

Personal, wellness, hotel and professional services will remain open by appointment only. No walk-ins are allowed.

SCHOOL

Starting Nov. 30, all Grade 7 through 12 students will turn to at-home schooling for the rest of 2020.

All Alberta students will begin their holiday break Dec. 18 and come back to school in the new year one week later on Jan. 11 to allow for a latency period, the premier said. However, the vacation is not being extended – students will school at home for the one week prior to Jan. 11.

The Alberta Teachers’ Association said it supported the government’s direction.

“Our schools are only as safe as our communities. Teachers have been concerned about the rising number of COVID cases in Alberta and the impact this increase is having on schools,” ATA president Jason Schilling said in a statement.

Diploma exams in April, June and August will be optional.

WORKPLACE

The premier also asked that any workers who can work from home do so for a minimum of three weeks. Masks will be mandatory in all indoor workplaces in the Edmonton and Calgary medical zones, where Kenney said 83 per cent of Alberta’s COVID-19 cases are located.

“Since the beginning of the pandemic, we’ve said that when used properly masks can play an important role in helping to limit the spread of COVID-19,” he commented. 

“They’re not a silver bullet – nothing is – but it’s one useful layer of protection and there are now mountains of studies to confirm that.”

Masks are not mandatory where employees are alone in an office or cubicle or distanced from others.

As of Tuesday, 318 Alberta schools were managing an active alert or outbreak, totalling 1,135 cases.

DEC. 15 DEADLINE

The province will be watching to see if the restrictions bring down Alberta’s rate of transmission to one per cent by Dec. 15.

“Absolutely that’s the minimum metric,” Kenney said Tuesday.

“Ideally, we’d like to see it get to 0.8 per cent. But if we start to move a little below one, then we know that we began effectively to bend the curve.”

Currently, that value sits at 1.3 in Edmonton and 1.1 in Calgary. Across Alberta, the reproductive value is 1.12 as of Monday.

The premier warned if the latest round of public health measures did not have an impact in three weeks, the government “will impose stricter measures.”  

However, the Official Opposition called Tuesday’s plan inadequate.

“Albertans waited 12 whole days expecting to see strong action, but once again this premiere let them down. This announcement is simply not enough,” NDP Leader Rachel Notely said.

“We cannot know what Dr. Hinshaw recommended to this UCP cabinet, but I do not, for one second, believe it was this.”

The NDP called for mandatory masks throughout Alberta and a “plan” for families who would soon have their older children at home full time.

On Tuesday, Alberta’s active case count rose to 13,349, and its death tally by 16 to 492.

 

Although Tuesday’s number of new cases was the lowest in nearly two weeks, Hinshaw attributed that to the province conducting fewer tests: while about 19,000 tests were done Sunday, only 13,500 tests were done Monday.

There are 438 Albertans in hospital with COVID-19, 66 of whom are receiving intensive care.

Alberta’s newest measures – which resemble action recently taken by B.C. – aren’t meant to be a “chase for zero,” Kenney commented.

He said the province would do everything it could to avoid a broader shutdown, which would be “intolerable.”

“In so much of the debate, we’ve forgotten about the charter of rights and freedoms. Since when should governments start with an impairment of fundamental charter protected rights and freedoms, rather than engage in such an impairment as a last and final resort?”

A full list of Alberta’s enhanced public health measures can be found online.

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