Alberta bans indoor social gatherings as province declares 2nd state of public health emergency

Alberta rolled out new restrictions on Tuesday that prohibit all social gatherings in people’s homes and make masks mandatory for all indoor workplaces in the province’s two largest cities.

Premier Jason Kenney called the new restrictions “bold and targeted” as his government tries to slow a pandemic raging on a day when the province reported 1,115 new cases and 13,349 active cases of the disease, by far the highest number yet.

Asked at one point if the measures will be seen as strong enough, Kenney grew philosophical.

“For the first time in the history of our province, we’ve just told people that they’re not allowed to have anybody over to their homes,” he said. “And they’re going to be fined if they do.

“If you’re holding indoor social events, they’re now illegal. That’s pretty astonishing. And those rules will be enforced to our greatest ability.” 

At a lengthy news conference on a day when Alberta reported 16 more deaths, Kenney declared a state of public health emergency and announced a series of restrictions he said were approved by cabinet based on recommendations from the chief medical officer of health.

WATCH | Alberta Premier Jason Kenney announces new COVID-19 restrictions for Alberta

Alberta rolled out new restrictions on Tuesday that prohibit all social gatherings in people’s homes and make masks mandatory for all indoor workplaces in the province’s two largest cities. 3:57

Restrictions to be re-evaluated in 3 weeks

The province first declared a public health emergency on March 17, which ended on June 15.

Kenney said his government will re-evaluate the new restrictions on Dec. 15 and impose stricter measures if case numbers continue to rise at the current rate.

“If we do not start to bend the curve with this latest round of measures and greater efforts by Alberta, let me be blunt: we will impose stricter measures, likely in about three weeks’ time,” he said.

“We will continue to assess it, but we’re not going to let political pressure or ideological approaches to cause indiscriminate damage to people’s lives and livelihoods. We’re going to protect the health-care system using targeted measures. We’ll have to be more restrictive if they don’t work.”

‘Half measures’

NDP Opposition Leader Rachel Notley criticized the announcement, calling the changes “half measures” that are too little, too late.

She pointed to challenges in contact tracing and unknown sources of the virus, as well as climbing hospitalizations and deaths. 

“We have lost more Albertans to COVID-19 so far this month than we have since the pandemic began,” she said at a news conference. 

“It’s now clear that the official position of this government of Alberta is to do the very least possible to stop the spread of COVID-19.”

But Kenney said critics and members of the public should remember that every measure put in place makes life harder for thousands of Albertans, the premier said.

“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.

The restrictions are intended to protect both lives and livelihoods, he said.

“We are 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.”

‘Profound damage’

Kenney said he has heard the voices, including those of hundreds of doctors, calling for a much wider lockdown.

“I would ask people who have the certainty of a paycheque, particularly a government paycheque, to think for a moment about those individuals whose entire life savings are tied up in businesses,” he said.

“I would ask them to think about the 175,000 people who work in that [restaurant] industry, disproportionately women. I would ask them to think about the impact on those lives.”

Kenney noted that his government brought in limited new restrictions just 11 days ago, and until Tuesday had resisted calls for a lockdown because of the “profound damage” it could cause by throwing hundreds of thousands of people out of work and deepening the mental health crisis.

“It would also be an unprecedented violation of fundamental, constitutionally protected rights and freedoms,” Kenney said of a lockdown. “Instead, we focused, as we’ve done since the beginning, on targeted measures aimed at places where the data clearly showed that COVID-19 was spreading.

“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.”

‘Heartbreaking’ letters

Kenney called the pandemic a “once-in-a-century public health challenge” and spoke about receiving “heartbreaking” letters and emails from thousands of Albertans in recent days.

He said the decision to impose new measures came after he spent much of the weekend on the phone talking to front-line health-care workers, followed by an eight-hour long cabinet committee meeting on Monday.

“I read out some of these letters to my colleagues during yesterday’s incredibly challenging eight-hour long meeting of the COVID cabinet committee,” he said. “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.”

Across Alberta, 348 people were being treated in hospitals for the illness on Tuesday, including 66 in ICU beds.

The new measures introduced on Tuesday will be evaluated after three weeks, Kenney said.

They are:

  • No indoor social gatherings allowed in any setting, including private homes, public spaces or workplaces. Indoor close contacts must be limited to people in the same household. However, people who live alone can have up to the same two non-household contacts for the duration of the restriction.
  • Outdoor gatherings limited to 10 people. Kenney said this will be enforced with fines of $1,000. 
  • Schools — Beginning Nov. 30, all students in Grades 7-12 will immediately transition to online learning until they begin their winter break. In-person learning for all students will be delayed a week until Jan. 11.

  • Weddings and funerals — Maximum of 10 people for wedding ceremonies or funeral services.

  • Places of worship — Faith-based groups can operate with mandatory reduced capacity, of one-third of the building’s occupancy. Mask use is mandatory. This is only in effect in regions with enhanced status on the province’s COVID-19 map. 
  • Working from home — All businesses are encouraged to have employees work from home as much as possible. Kenney said that would include provincial government employees.

  • Businesses that must close include banquet halls, conference centres, trade shows, auditoriums and concert venues, community centres, children’s play places and indoor playgrounds. Sports are also included in this category.
  • Food and beverage — Restaurants, bars, pubs and lounges will be open. Tables can seat a maximum of six people from the same household, while people who live alone can meet with up to two non-household contacts who are part of their cohort. Last call will continue to be at 10 p.m. and licensed food-serving establishments must close at 11.

Businesses that can remain open with restrictions include most retail businesses, with capacity limited to 25 per cent of  fire code occupancy. That includes liquor and cannabis shops, grocery stores, pharmacies, clothing stores, computer and technology stores, hardware, automotive and approved farmers and seasonal markets. Also included are movie theatres, museums and galleries, libraries, casinos (though table games must close) and indoor entertainment centres.

Fitness and recreation centres can operate with reduced capacity, but only for individual workouts, with no group fitness, group classes, group training, team practices or games.

Restrictions around businesses are only in effect in regions with enhanced COVID-19 status.

‘Social gatherings are the biggest problem’

“Let me just be absolutely clear about this,” Kenney said. “Social gatherings are the biggest problem. Many people may think that a family dinner or a get-together with friends is no big deal, it’s just normal. And you know, 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.”

Kenney was joined at the news conference by Health Minister Tyler Shandro, Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw and Dr. Verna Yiu, CEO of Alberta Health Services.

The regional breakdown of cases on Tuesday was:

  • Edmonton zone: 6,128
  • Calgary zone: 4,903
  • Central zone: 830
  • North zone: 764
  • South zone: 649
  • Unknown: 75 

Among the people whose deaths were reported on Tuesday were:

  • A woman in her 70s, two others in their 90s, and three men in their 90s linked to an outbreak at South Terrace Continuing Care in the Edmonton zone.
  • A man in his 80s linked to the outbreak at Royal Alexandra Hospital in the Edmonton zone. His death was previously reported by AHS.
  • A man in his 80s linked to the outbreak at Capital Care Lynnwood in the Edmonton zone.
  • A man in his 90s and a woman in her 100s linked to the outbreak at Rosealta Lodge in the Central zone.

The six other deaths were not linked to outbreaks. Those people were:

  • Two men in their 70s from the Edmonton zone.
  • A woman in her 60s and two men in their 60s from the Edmonton zone.
  • A woman in her 100s from the Edmonton zone.

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