Alberta Premier Jason Kenney says tougher health restrictions likely aimed at Calgary and Edmonton are coming if the current round of rules don’t bend the curve on COVID-19.
Kenney, taking questions on a Facebook town hall meeting, said it makes sense to target the novel coronavirus where it’s having the most impact.
“If you’re in a remote community with a negligible number of COVID cases, where there are no cases in the local hospitals, that is not the issue right now,” Kenney said Thursday night.
“The issue is the hot zones in Calgary and Edmonton — and that’s what we’ll be addressing with increasing focus in the days to come.”
His comments came just hours after Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s chief medical health officer, announced a concerning rise in rates in rural areas. She stressed that even one case can move like wildfire and COVID-19 doesn’t respect geographical boundaries.
“COVID-19 is not a Calgary problem or Edmonton problem. This is a provincial problem,” Hinshaw said
“Our overall active case rates prove that COVID-19 doesn’t care where you live or what your postal code is.”
As of Thursday, Alberta had 17,743 active cases. Of those, about 16 per cent were in areas outside the Edmonton and Calgary medical zones.
Alberta Health says 29 per cent of all active cases are outside the four largest cities of Edmonton, Calgary, Red Deer and Lethbridge.
The local geographic area around the resort area of Banff was last reported at 1,140 active cases per 100,000 people. The Municipal District of Acadia, in southern Alberta, is the third highest in the province, with 1,086 active cases per 100,000. Smoky Lake County, northeast of Edmonton, is the fifth highest with 891 cases per 100,000.
Kenney has been both lauded and criticized for taking a geographically based, nuanced approach to prevent the spread of the pandemic while trying to keep open as many businesses and community centres as possible.
The pandemic control situation is not going well.
Alberta has registered well over 1,000 new cases a day for two weeks and, on some days, has more new cases than large provinces such as Ontario.
Health officials are reassigning staff, space, and patients to free up more intensive care beds while dealing with outbreaks at 22 hospitals and health facilities. The government is also exploring bringing in medical field tents from the Red Cross if necessary.
Last week, Kenney introduced a series of provincewide health restrictions, such as a ban on indoor gatherings.
But there are reduced health restrictions for geographically defined areas with low infection rates, mainly in parts of central, southern and northern Alberta, which comprise five per cent of Alberta’s population.
They don’t have to abide by rules such as the 25 per cent maximum occupancy in retail stores and businesses and the limit of six people, all from the same household, per table in restaurants. They also don’t have to abide by the maximum one-third capacity for worship services.
Most municipalities have made it mandatory to wear masks in indoor public spaces.
But Kenney has, unlike all other premiers, refused to implement a provincewide mask mandate, saying it’s unnecessary for remote areas and that some rural folk would refuse to wear a mask if it was an order.
Cold Lake, Alta., a city of almost 15,000 in the province’s northeast, has twice voted down a mandatory mask bylaw.
Mayor Craig Copeland said Friday masks don’t need to be mandatory, because people in his community are following guidelines from Hinshaw.
“Ninety per cent of the people in Cold Lake now are wearing masks,” Copeland said. “Do they really need to be told by a mayor and council to wear a mask?”
Opposition NDP health critic David Shepherd said Kenney’s striated welter of public-health directives cater to his rural political base and the anti-mask fringe he wants to keep happily ensconced in his United Conservative Party.
“Instead of inspiring and bringing together folks in rural Alberta to do what we know they can do, (Kenney) is more interested in protecting his political fortunes with a small minority of folks who are going to resist.”
In Smoky Lake County northeast of Edmonton, restaurant owner Hong Hu said her Maple Gardens Restaurant is one of the few in the area that is doing take out only.
“If it gets worse, of course I (will) worry about it,” Hu said, adding she’s more worried about the mounting cases in Alberta than the cases in her region.
She said the county has a mask bylaw and has put notes on businesses reminding people to wear them and sanitize regularly.
Back in Cold Lake, resident Cathy Olliffe-Webster, 60, said she is disappointed in the premier and her mayor for not making masks mandatory.
Cold Lake is still holding indoor events such as Christmas craft sales, despite the area’s first COVID-related death this week and active cases rising to more than 70, she said.
“I understand that Alberta’s economy has been hit harder than most, but I’m really sick of people putting money before people’s lives,” Olliffe-Webster said.
She said she was moved by an emotional speech Thursday by Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister, who begged people to follow COVID-19 rules.
“I just wish Jason Kenney was a little like him.”
— With files from Fakiha Baig and Daniela Germano in Edmonton
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 4, 2020.
Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press