As daily cases in Alberta hit record highs and the province’s COVID death toll surpassed 400 (it is now 492), Premier Jason Kenney was still resisting calls to institute lockdown measures like those imposed in other provinces. On Tuesday, however, Kenney shifted course, outlining the strongest measures to control the virus that Albertans have seen since the initial lockdown last March. Here are his remarks.
Good afternoon. Today, Alberta’s government is announcing bold and targeted new measures to protect both lives and livelihoods by limiting the spread of COVID-19.
This pandemic is a once-in-a-century public health challenge, and it has impacted every one of us in many different ways. I’ve received heartfelt and heartbreaking letters and emails from thousands of Albertans in recent days. I read out some of these letters to my colleagues during yesterday’s incredibly challenging, eight-hour long meeting of the COVID cabinet committee. I did so to remind myself and all of us who carry the burden of leadership at this time of the profound human impact of this crisis, and of our decisions.
One letter came from a grieving individual who talked about the devastating loss of a parent who died in long-term care from COVID-19. Another email was from the owner of a fifth-generation small business, who I know, in a rural town who is sick with anxiety that a lockdown could destroy her family’s work for a century, and with it their life savings. And another parent spoke of the anguish that they felt as they watched their children suffer increased anxiety over the virus, and sadness that they hadn’t visited with grandma or grandpa for months, while they themselves couldn’t see a clear path out of debt when the future of their job is unknown.
Another spoke of her husband, who had taken his own life as he faced the extreme stress, uncertainty and loss of the impacts of restrictions that we had in place this past spring.
I also spent much of the weekend calling frontline health care workers to thank them, to listen to their experiences and to seek their advice. Like the Calgary ICU nurse, a friend of mine, who is exhausted after staffing an emergency ward near full capacity. And an emergency doc whose hospital has no active COVID cases but who said that half of his patients are hurting from anxiety and depression due to the steady drumbeat of bad news and the impact of the COVID recession.
I heard from an Edmonton surgeon who had said that his hospital here is coping well with COVID, but he’s worried for his cardiac patients, whose surgeries might be pushed back by months as a result of the pandemic. We are all so deeply grateful for the compassion and the professionalism of these and hundreds of rather thousands of medical staff across the province for things that they have been doing, large and small.
As Dr. Hinshaw has said, there is no one single way through this pandemic and any decision impacts the lives of our friends and our neighbors. Just 11 days ago, I told Albertans that we were at a dangerous juncture. We resisted calls for a lockdown of our society because of the profound damage it would cause, especially for the poor and the vulnerable who are most affected by policies like that; by throwing hundreds of thousands of people out of work and deepening the mental health crisis while leaving many to despair.
It would also be an unprecedented violation of fundamental, constitutionally protected rights and freedoms. Instead, we focused, as we’ve done from the beginning, on targeted measures aimed at places where the data clearly showed that COVID-19 was spreading. The vast majority of Albertans have worked hard to abide by the restrictions announced on November 12 and all of our guidelines.
But the virus continues to spread. Its spread is picking up speed. Thank you to everyone, however, who has done their best. But as I say, we we have all observed that Alberta has set daily records for new COVID-19 cases, and more lives lost. Today, I am saddened to report that 16 more deaths have been experienced in Alberta related to COVID-19. And my heart goes out to their loved ones and to all of those grieving. The 492 lives lost since March.
Continuing-care outbreaks have quadrupled since October 1, and they are putting the lives of our most vulnerable, our seniors, at risk. These are our grandparents, aunts and uncles; our parents, friends and mentors. They are the people who built our province. We need to do everything we can to protect them and to ensure they remain safe. And let me pause to say that, yes, our policy is based partly on protecting the vulnerable while minimizing damage to our broader social health. But to protect the vulnerable, we all have to do our part in limiting community spread.
Because it doesn’t matter. We could have the very best systems in the world, and great efforts by our nursing-home operators to protect their patients. But inevitably, if there is widespread community transmission of this virus, it does and will get into nursing homes and other places where many of the vulnerable elderly live.
We must also protect our health system. This has been a long, hard year. But babies are still being born, thank God. And car accidents unfortunately still happen. And thousands of people are waiting for surgeries to be performed. And here is today’s urgent reality. If we do not slow the sharp rise of both hospitalizations and ICU admissions, they will threaten our ability to continue delivering health services that we all rely on.
This has already started. Edmonton Zone has already postponed many non-urgent surgeries. As cases continue to rise, other surgeries and services will have to be put on hold to make sure that we have the hospital beds and staff available to care for people with COVID and all other critically ill patients.
And let me pause here for a second to say this: we have one of the best health-care systems in the world. We have the best-funded health-care system in Canada. Canada has one of the best-funded, publicly administered health-care systems on the face of the Earth. We have one of the highest per capita numbers of physicians and nurses. We have tremendous hard-working professionals, world class hospitals, equipment.
And yet there are limits. We have 8,400 acute care beds and we are working night and day to increase capacity for the current and expected COVID surge. But as we increase that capacity, it comes at a real cost at cost to people’s health. And, I fear, at a cost to people’s lives. If we do not take the right measures, a growing number of Albertans will have to wait longer and longer for important surgery—many of them in pain and suffering. To be blunt, this will cost lives as well, reducing life expectancy. We cannot let that happen.
And that is why I am declaring a state of public-health emergency in Alberta. We are also announcing a series of targeted measures approved by the COVID cabinet committee based on recommendations from the chief medical officer of health. These mandatory measures will place new restrictions on social gatherings, worship services, businesses, schools and all Albertans. Believe me, these steps are not being taken lightly, and I certainly didn’t go into public service— nor did any of the people sitting around our cabinet table—in order to impose restrictions on how people live their lives.
But we believe these are the minimum restrictions needed right now to safeguard our health-care system while avoiding widespread damage to people’s livelihoods. We are doing everything we can to strike that balance.
The first set of restrictions will target social gatherings across the province. Let me just be absolutely clear about this. Social gatherings are the biggest problem. Many people may think that a family dinner or get-together with friends is no big deal, just normal. And we don’t imagine when we gather with family that people are going to be transmitting a virus like this. But it is the key reason why COVID-19 is winning. These gatherings in the home continue to be the largest source of transmission. And so they must stop now. That’s why, effective immediately, no indoor social gatherings will be permitted in any setting, and outdoor social gatherings will be limited to a maximum of 10 people. Let me repeat, no indoor social gatherings will be permitted, period.
We are limiting attendance as well at funeral and wedding ceremonies to no more than 10 in-person attendees and receptions will not be permitted. I know this is a terrible sacrifice for so many. Perhaps some of those who have been planning weddings over the winter can think about perhaps rescheduling those into the spring—hopefully after the positive effects of the inoculation vaccine program. But for those grieving, I know this is a particular sacrifice to make. But we have learned here and around the world that weddings and funerals, given their intimate and emotional nature, are some of the largest causes for widespread transmission. It is this is not a preference. This is just a reality to which we are responding.
This restriction applies across the province and it is mandatory. We will enforce these rules against indoor social gatherings, and those who break these rules will be subject to fines. We’ll also look at ways to allow peace officers to deliver fines for anyone violating these limits.
An emergency alert will go out later this week on people’s smartphones to make sure that every Albertan is aware of these limits.
We’re also applying new limits to gatherings and places of worship. Our diverse faith communities have worked incredibly hard to limit the spread, and we know these settings are an important part of many people’s lives, including their emotional, mental and spiritual health. While the vast majority of faith communities have carefully followed our guidelines and experienced no known transmission, a handful have flagrantly violated these parameters, causing outbreaks. And that is why we are moving from recommendations to rules, capping attendance at one-third of fire code, while masking is is also required, to be clear.
This will not affect the vast majority of faith communities who are already respecting the physical-distancing guidelines. But it will make it clear that these are no longer just guidelines and that this is not optional. We believe this approach balances the Charter-protected, fundamental right to freedom of religion with the public-health imperative.
These mandatory restrictions will be in place for three weeks and will be reevaluated mid-December. Effective Friday, we are also implementing new, temporary restrictions to limit the number of people coming into contact with each other at businesses and services. These restrictions fall under three categories: closed for in-person businesses; open with restricted capacity; and thirdly, open by appointment only. Effective this Friday, we are temporarily closing certain businesses for in-person service in select regions. This includes the closure of banquet halls, conference centres and concert venues.
It also impacts all levels of sport, though leagues may apply for exemptions if they have well-developed COVID safety plans. And let me pause, there. Some people say sport is an important part of mental and, obviously, physical health. Of course it is. But unfortunately, just in the last couple of weeks, we’ve seen nine outbreaks coming from hockey games—amateur hockey games—that have been played in the province. This is, again, not our preference. This is just the reality that we’re dealing with.
Retail businesses and services may remain open, but will be restricted to 25 per cent of occupancy limits. In-person dining in bars, restaurants, pubs and cafes can continue, but we’ll need to comply with our guidelines very carefully. And those dining out must be limited to those who are in one household at similar to the protocol of British Columbia.
Finally, some businesses will be restricted to appointment-only and must follow all public-health guidance in place. This includes hair salons, personal-wellness services, hotels, professional services and other businesses. I just want to pause there to say, you know, we’ve got to find little bits of positive developments and good news, here. Some of you may recall all of the anxiety about reopening personal services in the spring, including hair salons. Well, we don’t know of a single, known case of transmission in a hair salon. And so, just let me say thank you to those operators, those workers, for being so, so incredibly careful. Just a great example of the positive things that have happened as people have come together.
We’re also calling on all workers who can work from home to do so. I truly appreciate that many businesses have made major investments in creating safe workplaces. But the hard fact is that transmission at offices continues to be a major reason for spread. The government of Alberta will lead by example, transitioning much of our office workforce to remote work in the days and weeks to come. These measures will be in place for a minimum of three weeks and will be reevaluated as well in mid-December.
As our chief medical officer has said, our school system has done very well at limiting in-school transmission. Parents, teachers and staff have worked incredibly hard to keep kids safe. Having said that, rising cases in our workplaces and homes, driven disproportionately by the social gatherings, means that we are seeing rising cases in schools, as well. There’s very limited transmission within the schools, but more community transmission affecting the schools and their ability to operate.
This has particularly impacted staffing, which places challenges on the quality of learning that can be delivered. And that is why we are shifting some students to at home learning, early, before the holiday break. On November 30, all students in Grades 7 through 12 will end in-person schooling for the balance of 2020. And on December 18, all students will begin their winter breaks. In-person learning for all students will be delayed a week after the holiday, until January 11, to allow kids who have been around family, for example, and perhaps friends, over the holidays to have that that latency period before they go back to school.
Teenagers are much more likely to transmit the virus than younger children. A longer period away from the school for these older students will help to reduce broader community transmission. Keeping younger kids in school will also help to make it possible for parents to continue to work, as well. Child-care centers for preschool children will be able to operate within our safe guidelines, and they, too, have done a great job to prevent spread. Thank you to those child-care and daycare operators and workers.
Finally, 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. 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. And so, effective immediately, masks are mandatory for all indoor workplaces in Edmonton and Calgary and surrounding areas—we call them Edmonton and Calgary health zones—where we see 83 per cent of our cases. This will accompany the existing municipal masking bylaws in place in those communities.
I know this is a lot of information. And in a couple of minutes, I’ll invite the minister of health, Tyler Shandro, to outline each of these measures in more detail. Then we’ll also hear from Dr. Hinshaw.
These measures are tough, but they are necessary. They are needed to protect our health-care system from being overwhelmed, and to ensure that Albertans can access care for medical needs. Besides COVID-19, they are needed to protect the most vulnerable among us. They’re also needed to protect Albertans from the health, social and economic damage that a crushing lockdown would inflict. We must not forget that every measure we put in place does make life harder for thousands of Albertans. Every new restriction makes it tougher for business owners to stay open and for thousands of people to pay their bills. Each new measure pushes more people into debt and more families closer to bankruptcy.
All across Alberta, there are restaurants, hotels, retail businesses and so many others—I call them the unsung heroes of our economy; so many family owned businesses, where they throw everything, their life savings, at risk to create opportunity to hire people. They need to know Albertans have their back. And so I encourage all Albertans to shop local and continue to support Alberta-based businesses wherever and whenever possible.
These restrictions are not about our preferences. They’re not about politics. They’re not about abstractions. They are about protecting both people’s lives and the livelihoods that they depend on. This is the way forward for Alberta and that is the path that we are taking today. We’re taking these measures now, so that we have a chance to review where we’re at before Christmas, which is so important to so many as a source of comfort and family.
And here’s the good news. We are all looking forward to a day when we have widespread application of rapid testing, and a vaccine readily available across the province. The end of this terrible time is in sight. Gosh knows we are all tired of this. COVID-19 is testing us. But we have risen to bigger challenges in the past. Now is the time for all of Albertans to meet the moment.
The restrictions on gatherings, on businesses, on places of worship will be evaluated after three weeks. If we see a significant drop in our new daily cases, we may be able to ease them. But let me be blunt: if these measures do not have meaningful impact—and that depends on how each one of us responds—we will be forced to take even more drastic measures to protect the health-care system later in December.
It is up to every one of us to do the right thing and abide by the new measures. That’s the only way we reduce the spread and lift those measures as soon as possible. So let’s all stand together and do our part. Thank you.