The Alberta government’s decision to not enter Step 3 of its pandemic-reopening plan on Monday received a mixed reaction from businesses, religious communities and sports organizations that would have benefited from the further easing of public health restrictions related to COVID-19.
Catriona Le May Doan, the president and CEO of the amateur sport organization Sport Calgary, said while the decision was disappointing, she believes the health and safety of Albertans is paramount.
“We’re not the experts,” she said. “So we trust the experts and hopefully we can just abide by all the guidelines that are in place so that kids can get back to sports, adults can get back to sports and we can be active once again.
“I know everybody’s frustrated… I’m frustrated as a participant, as a mum, as an organization — but again, we need to follow the experts. They understand what’s happening. We want numbers to go down, we want people to be vaccinated (and) we’re on the right path, but we’re not quite there yet so we need to keep following the guidelines.”
Had Alberta moved into Step 3 of its reopening plan on Monday, the sectors in which restrictions may have been eased included casinos and other gambling facilities, museums, art galleries, zoos and facilities that host indoor seated events. Also on the table was potentially loosening restrictions on adult and youth sports, places of worship and on indoor social gatherings.
“There will be no easing of any restrictions at this time,” Health Minister Tyler Shandro said, citing a concerning rise in a number of different metrics the province monitors, something he blamed on the federal government not distributing COVID-19 vaccines quickly enough.
“This is the safe move. It’s the smart move to make for our province right now and it’s absolutely necessary to help us avoid a third wave that would take more lives and once again put more pressure on the hospital system.”
Shandro made the announcement after a cabinet committee aimed at responding to the pandemic met Monday and discussed the possibility of easing more restrictions.
Cody Cook, the manager of Globe Cinema in Calgary, said the movie theatre has been hit hard financially by its forced closure. He said while the theatre will likely not be impacted much further if it can reopen within a couple of weeks, he hopes provincial officials “eventually make up their minds and just open stuff up.”
“The problem is now that it’s getting a bit warmer, people will be less inclined to come to the cinema,” he said. “The longer we wait, the harder it’s going to be.”
Cook suggested he doesn’t understand why movie theatres can’t remain open if they follow strict public health guidelines. He told Global News that on a conference call late last year, where he spoke with managers of other cinemas across the province, all reported that their theatres never saw a single case of COVID-19 during the months they were allowed to remain open.
“Yet the malls are still open and the bars are still open,” Cook said. “It just seems weird to me that they’re picking and choosing what’s allowed to be open.
“We have Plexiglas behind us, we have Plexiglas in our box office, there’s 400 seats (but) we’re only allowing 50 people in at a time — there’s ample social distancing, we enforce masks throughout… It just seems that cinemas, which are probably one of the safest places you could be in, aren’t allowed to be open.”
Bill Walker, the CEO of Landmark Cinemas Canada, said while his company will be able to weather the financial storm brought on by COVID-19, he believes small, independent cinemas may not and he would like to see proof that cinemas present a public-health risk.
“I mean, we understand and support public health measures that are reasonable to keep cases low and bend the curve, and we’re totally aligned with that,” he said.
“I think what’s most frustrating is we fundamentally believe we’re not categorized properly… just go to a restaurant, look at the density, look at the activity, look at the social interaction, and then imagine yourself in an 80-foot-wide auditorium, with physical distancing in all directions, with independent HVAC, with reserved seating, sitting quietly with your family, and then think, ‘Why is it OK to go to a restaurant but a theatre is an ominous risk for the population?’
“I can’t make any sense of (it)… and that’s why it’s pretty frustrating.”
During Monday’s announcement that the further easing of Alberta’s COVID-19 restrictions would not occur immediately, the province’s chief medical officer of health cited rising case numbers, a growing number of cases involving variants of COVID-19 that some medical experts believe are more contagious and a growing number of hospitalizations.
“Once we hit a growth phase of this virus, our numbers will not stand still,” Dr. Deena Hinshaw said, reminding Albertans of how quickly the novel coronavirus was able to wreak havoc on the health-care system during the second wave of the pandemic late last year.
She urged all Albertans to vigilantly follow public health measures to help curb the virus’ spread while the province’s vaccination program continues its work.
“Though it may be hard to see it, our choices have immense power,” Hinshaw said. “The message we all need to take to heart… if we let the virus spread rapidly at this point in time, the vaccines can’t catch up.”
She noted that it was not necessarily one particular activity resulting in the growing numbers. Instead, the common thread to spread has been people letting their guard down and not being as careful as they should be.
Felice Lifshitz, the president of the Temple Beth Ora synagogue in Edmonton, said although entering into Step 3 would have loosened restrictions on religious entities, she understands why the decision was made not to.
“We’re not chomping at the bit to be able to get together again as long as it clearly is not safe,” she said. “There’s just no reason to want to do that.”
She noted that Friday night will mark the first night of Passover, which would normally see large gatherings be held at synagogues and homes.
“You would be sitting down together, eating together with masks off for hours on end — so it probably couldn’t be done safely even if restrictions were lifted,” Lifshitz said.
Vik Mahajan, the CEO of the Edmonton area’s River Cree Resort and Casino, said his business is doing what it can to be safe for visitors during the pandemic and has spent over $1 million on efforts to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus.
“It could get a little frustrating when you see that we’ve made the effort and can’t get to open,” he said.
“If you look at the casino floor here and other casinos too, there are no indoor gatherings. Its individuals sitting by themselves with barriers between them, whether its tables or slots.”
Cook said he believes by restricting access to places like theatres and limiting the hours that bars can open, the government is only pushing people who crave social interaction to ill-advised gatherings inside homes, which is in contravention of public health rules.
“They’re not giving anybody any options,” he said.
“Theatres are not a part of the problem,” Walker said. “Theatres are actually, to me, the great solution, where you go, ‘Hey, here’s something safe you can do with your family — you maintain physical distance, there’s not servers going throughout the experience, auditoriums… we sanitize every seat and every surface between every show.’
“No other venue can provide the personal space… no other venue you go to has 200 square feet per customer.”
Ellis Jacob, the president and CEO of Cineplex, issued a statement after the province made its announcement on Monday afternoon.
“We are extremely frustrated and disappointed with today’s announcement,” he said. “This is devastating news to the more than 1,000 Albertans who make up our workforce across our 19 theatres in the province, all of whom are presently out of work.
“Despite being indisputably one of the safest forms of public gathering — safer than any restaurant, big box retailer or other indoor venue — the government of Alberta continues to shutter movie theatres for reasons they either can’t justify or just won’t disclose.”
Dr. James Talbot, the province’s former chief medical officer of health, told Global News he is very concerned with data showing COVID-19’s growing impact in Alberta once again.
“(The) fear, which is based in reality, is that we’re going to see the second wave on steroids,” he said.
“We’ve been saying for a while that with the new variant increasing throughout Alberta that there was a very good possibility of a third wave, and it looks like that’s what we’re seeing.”
Dr. Craig Jenne, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Calgary, said the numbers he has seen indicate to him “that the virus is growing in the community.”
“The variants in particular are growing at an extremely rapid rate,” he said.
“I think given the numbers we were seeing over the last several weeks that this (decision not to enter Step 3) is really the only decision they could have made, and really the right decision for this time.”
Alberta Health reported Monday that the province recorded 110 new variant cases and now has 1,711 in total, more than any province, including Ontario and Quebec.
–With files from The Canadian Press’ Dean Bennett
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