A perceived “flip flop” in Alberta’s COVID-19 public health policy is being celebrated by many in the businesses community who are struggling to survive, but according to some experts, the back-and-forth could hurt the government’s credibility when it comes to public health measures.
Barbershops, hair salons, tattoo parlors and other personal wellness services will be allowed to operate again starting Monday, a change the government made just a week after announcing widespread health restrictions would be extended until late January.
That change in tone came on the heels of one Alberta barbershop’s blatant defiance of the provincial closure order, the owner of which, Natalie Klein, started illegally cutting the hair of Innisfail residents on Tuesday, and as many others voiced their frustration over the shutdown.
Calgary political scientist Lori Williams said that in light of the recent scandal around several government officials travelling internationally over the Christmas holidays, she doesn’t “know that there’s a lot of credibility or trust associated with the decisions that are being made.”
“I think there was a question about whether the government really believed that these were the restrictions that were necessary,” Williams said. “And… the hypocrisy obviously hurt the government significantly with respect to this.”
Williams said that lack of trust could lead other businesses to follow in the steps of Klein at Bladez 2 Fadez, particularly if restrictions have to be tightened again in the future.
“There is a risk here that, because the government’s change in policy follows so closely the defiance of a barbershop owner, that it could incentivize other people to try to force the government or push the government in a particular direction by disobeying the rules and regulations that are in place,” she said.
“These are problems that the government has that it might not have had were it not for the the failure of many senior government officials to to follow their own rules.”
Williams said it’s important the government listen to feedback on its approach to dealing with the pandemic, and make changes if they’re warranted, but admitted it’s a “delicate balance to strike.”
“I don’t think there’s any question that there was some political motivation to this,” she said.
“The credibility and trust in the credibility of the government and people’s trust in and the reasons behind the policies that they’re making has been damaged.
“And so there may be a willingness on the part of some people to say, ‘Well, I don’t think the government is making the decisions for the right reasons and I’m just not going to follow them.’”
Speaking to the media on Thursday, Health Minister Tyler Shandro said the decision was “not political at all,” and that personal wellness services “have a different level of risk,” when it comes to viral transmission.
“[It’s] important for us to remember the still restrictions on personal services, but this time we can allow them to to open for appointment only,” Shandro said.
Dr. Deena Hinshaw also said case numbers now are vastly different than they were in December, when the restrictions were first announced.
“We did have to include them in the list in order to reduce the number of close contacts that Albertans had with each other on a daily basis,” Hinshaw said.
“And as we were discussing the possibility of what things could be opened, the things that are being announced today [Thursday] were part of my recommendation, based on the evidence, based on the levels of transmission that we have seen in different places. And our trends today are very different than our trend in December.”
‘The ticket is still valid’
When it comes to businesses like the Innisfail barbershop that have been ticketed for violating public health orders, assistant professor in the University of Calgary’s faculty of law, Dr. Lorian Hardcastle, said the change in messaging won’t have much of an impact on fines or tickets issued under the previous law.
“The ticket is still valid under the previous law, because when the offence occurred, the law was still in place,” Hardcastle said.
“An individual can have a sense that it’s unfair when they get charged under under a law and then it later changes. But if what they were doing was illegal at the time of the offence, that’s not a defence to the to the ticket.”
Where the quick change in policy could have an impact, however, is if Klein, or any other business owner, tried to contest a ticket on the grounds that the health restrictions violated the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
“In that case, the government has to show that its limits on charter rights are evidence based,” she said.
“And if they’re flip flopping and making changes, then it really doesn’t seem perhaps that those restrictions were necessary.”
Hardcastle said the change in guidance for personal wellness services isn’t the first flip-flop that could cause Albertans to have less trust in the restrictions being enforced.
She referenced the decision just before Christmas to allow single people to attend one family gathering during the holidays as being a direct contradiction of the “Uncle COVID” commercial campaign, which portrayed “Uncle COVID” hanging out with family as a source of viral transmission.
Hardcastle said clear, consistent messaging is key in getting people to understand the importance of restrictions, but also in having legal ramifications linked to those health orders.
“It’s sending a message about the seriousness of the restrictions and how important it is to follow them, when we’ve had these these rapid changes and decisions in a very short time,” she said.
“And it’s not as though there have been there’s been new evidence about transmission and hairdressers or those sorts of things that led to these changes. And so I think it undermines public trust and it undermines the public’s confidence in the government when they change their minds like that.
“I think it makes people question, well, are these restrictions necessary? If one day we can just decide that we shouldn’t have them anymore?”
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