Alberta has five major health zones, and for the first time during the pandemic, a significant number of new cases have appeared in all five at the same time.
The biggest increase is in the Calgary area, where doctors have made passionate calls for the government to do more to limit the spread, and city council has suddenly chosen to require face masks in indoor public places. Edmonton council is set to consider a similar settlement at an emergency advisory committee meeting on Thursday.
With all of this at the municipal level, it was striking to see the provincial leaders adopt a less disastrous tone this week.
During a press conference on Tuesday, Prime Minister Jason Kenney said “we should all be very concerned about the recent increase in active COVID-19 cases” while simultaneously announcing plans for a “near normal” return to the classes in September. No class size limit. No mask required.
Even Kenney’s warning was marked with an asterisk. He berated Albertans who had ignored public health orders to “bring down”, before softening the rebuke by adding, “We don’t expect perfection… do our best.
The disparate tone at the provincial and municipal levels highlights the challenge of leading a province-wide response to this disease, as infection rates in local areas can turn in no time. It also signals the growing responsibility that the province seeks to offload – onto educators, city leaders and everyday Albertans – to manage future outbreaks of this new virus.
Like the one currently living in Alberta.
From the belt to the reassuring
During the pandemic, the province’s official message has drifted from belting Albertans for an upcoming storm to reassure them that it’s safe to go outside again – as long as you’re careful.
There were only 60 active cases on March 15, when the province announced that school classes would be canceled indefinitely, a move that seemed extreme to many Albertans at the time.
There were 694 active cases on April 7, when Kenney called a special televised address and warned the public that the pandemic was “perhaps the greatest challenge of our generation.” He was keen to speak directly to Albertans who “wonder if we are overreacting to all of this” and assured them that the economic lockdown he ordered was necessary.
The worrying tone has faded recently, even as the number of active cases has increased.
There were 1,193 active cases on Tuesday, when the province announced the return to class.
Premier Kenney and Education Minister Adriana LaGrange have tried to reassure nervous parents and teachers, citing studies which suggest children are less prone to infection and disease transmission (not to mention a recent study suggesting otherwise) and focusing on safety measures like staggered lunch breaks. and new school pickup and drop-off protocols.
Still, they recognized that new infections are inevitable.
“We anticipate that there will be cases in schools,” LaGrange said. “But again, we have a very solid plan in place, so that when there is a case, we will be able to identify it quickly. We will be able to contain it. ”
Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr Deena Hinshaw said that some degree of spread among children and teachers was better than the alternative, because “prolonged school closures have a negative impact on mental health, long-term emotional and physical overall children ”.
School boards have expressed concerns about where the money is coming from for classroom renovations, additional cleaning supplies and hand sanitizer. The president of the Alberta Teachers’ Association said he could not imagine how the province’s vision for a safe return to classrooms will work in schools with thousands of students.
Parents who don’t feel comfortable should visit their local schools, LaGrange said, as the province is only providing “the outline” of how to mitigate the risk, while “the details are left behind. school divisions to implement. ”
This decentralized approach goes beyond just schools.
Municipal governments and masks
Calgary City Council is known for its lengthy deliberations that end in postponing difficult decisions to a later date, but this week it has acted with unusual haste.
It started with a draft regulation on mandatory masks on Calgary transit and took it one step further – requiring face masks in all indoor public places (with a few exceptions) as of August 1.
“In the absence of any further action, I think what we’re saying is we need to take action,” Tom Sampson, head of the Calgary Emergency Management Agency, told the board during the debate wearing him. – even a mask.
Coun. Ward Sutherland expressed some hesitation over whether the municipal government was overstepping its limits, saying he “might prefer the province to step in and do this”, but ultimately voted in favor of the settlement.
“Our numbers are much higher when we shut everything down,” he said of the current COVID-19 workload. “So just using this comparison, I have no problem supporting this. I understand people who want freedom but I also look at the data. It’s not good. ”
As Edmonton mulls over a mask bylaw, Mayor Don Iveson said enforcing such rules would be difficult for the city and called on the Government of Alberta to make face covering in public a requirement in the city. provincial level.
Calgary’s mask regulation, which passed by 12 to 3, was quickly applauded by doctors and business leaders. But some have wondered why this does not extend to schools.
Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi said it could come next, if the province doesn’t change its own policy.
“We need a better plan from the Government of Alberta,” he said. “And if we don’t have one, you know, the city of Calgary, we have to keep people safe – and if we have to get into the fray, we will. ”
Colin Aitchison, the press secretary to the education minister, said in an email Wednesday that “municipalities have the power to make bylaws for their communities”, but the province stands by its decision, based on the latest advice by Dr Hinshaw.
We were all together
Another piece of advice from Hinshaw – bordering on a mantra – was that “we’re all in the same boat”.
But, for the first time in this pandemic, Albertans are seeing significant disagreement among their leaders over how best to respond to an impending second wave.
After bringing down the hammer once, forcing schools and businesses to close en masse, the provincial government is reluctant to do it again.
“The last thing we want to do is impose restrictions that are damaging to our economy and our freedoms,” Kenney said.
Instead, he leaves the subsequent dance with disease to municipalities, school boards and the collective behavior of Albertans.
The province is betting this decentralized approach will be the best way forward, as it tries to walk a tightrope, balancing a complex set of risks to health, the economy and society in general.
But if the going gets tough, Alberta may have no choice but to bring back the hammer.