Calgary hotels asked if they’d promote ABTraceTogether app in exchange for eased restrictions

The Calgary Hotel Association is asking its members how they’d feel about promoting the Alberta government’s ABTraceTogether app in exchange for fewer restrictions on the hospitality industry — including potentially making installation of the contact-tracing app mandatory for some guests.

A survey was sent to about 60 member hotels on Monday, said association president Sol Zia, and the association plans to gather feedback until the end of the week. 

Zia said no decisions have been made and the industry is in “really, really early discussions” with the provincial government, which raised the idea.

“It was proposed, as a condition/concession, if Calgary hotels would consider promoting the installation of the Alberta Trace Together app at registration/check-in,” the survey explains.

The survey asks hotel owners and operators for their thoughts on how the provincial contact-tracing app could be paired with a future reopening of more services in the hard-hit hospitality sector.

The questions include:

  • “If restrictions on meetings, swimming pools, fitness facilities and dining could begin to be eased, how much would you agree with promoting the Government of Alberta’s Trace Together app to guests at check-in or registration?”
  • “How much would you agree with a requirement that all meeting attendees at your hotels must install the Alberta Trace Together App before meeting participation (for non room stay guests)?”
  • “How much would you agree with a requirement that all swimming pool and fitness facility users must install the Alberta Trace Together App before using hotel facilities?”
  • “How much would you agree with a requirement that all in-person dining guests have at least one guest install the Alberta Trace Together App before using hotel facilities?”

In an email, Alberta Health spokesperson Tom McMillan said the province “is exploring a wide range of ideas and options to support safe reopening at a future date.”

“No decisions have been made,” he added.

Hotels facing cash crunch

The pandemic’s restrictions on travel, dining and other services have hit the hospitality industry especially hard.

Zia said many hotels are facing a severe cash crunch after various revenue streams slowed to a trickle or dried up altogether.

“Liquidity and the ability to just survive through this is the No.1 item for hotels,” he said.

“With the current, let’s call it shaming, of travel, there isn’t really any light on the horizon. So it’s a matter of survival.”

He said the association plans to gather input from members until the end of the week and then schedule a meeting with the provincial government to discuss the results and potential next steps.

The idea of making installation of the app a condition for use of some hotel facilities could be especially contentious, and Zia said the hotel association has also been asking major hotel brands such as Marriott, Hilton and Accor about how things have worked in other countries where people are required by law to install local tracing apps.

“We just don’t know enough. Like, how would guests respond?” he said.

“So right now, we’re just really building information. We don’t have a point of view or a direction yet. But it would be good for us to learn what other parts of the world have done, where apps have been mandatory for the population.”

Meanwhile, the Alberta government continues in its efforts to boost usage of its contact-tracing app, which it maintains is superior to the federal COVID Alert app.

Alberta app has traced contacts of 32 cases

The ABTraceTogether app has come under fire for having little usage, to date.

It was revealed in November that the app had been used to trace contacts of only about 20 cases over a span of six months.

As of Tuesday, McMillan said that was up 32 cases.

The app has about 300,000 registered users, he added.

At last count, the federal COVID Alert app had been downloaded six million times and been used to do exposure notifications in nearly 15,000 cases.

The federal COVID Alert app exchanges random codes via Bluetooth with nearby phones that have the app installed, using the Google/Apple Exposure Notification (GAEN) system. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Despite its relatively low usage, the Alberta government maintains its app is more suited to the task of contact tracing because it sends data directly to contact tracers. The federal app, by contrast, only alerts other individuals that they have been in close proximity to someone with a known case of COVID-19.

Tech experts have raised concerns about the Bluetooth protocol that Alberta’s app relies on to register contact with another device. They say the operating system of iPhones and other Apple devices limits the ability of the app to communicate when two Apple devices are both running the software in the background.

They note the federal app relies on a different protocol, one created by Apple in partnership with Google, and doesn’t have the same problems when operating in the background of an Apple device.

Premier Jason Kenney said this week the province is continuing to improve the app with software updates.

“There were updates to the app in December. There will be more updates in January,” Kenney said. “So it’s increasing in terms of its operational effectiveness.”

The December update was only for the Android version of the app, however. According to Apple’s App Store, the iPhone version hasn’t been updated since September.

“We hope that after the January updates are done to put another push on that to get people to download it,” Kenney said.

Alberta and British Columbia remain the only two provinces that haven’t signed on to the federal COVID Alert app.

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