Alberta Premier Jason Kenney on Wednesday introduced strict and sweeping new measures to combat the spread of COVID-19 as he apologized for his government’s handling of the pandemic.

The measures include a new program that requires people to provide proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test in order to gain entry to participating businesses and social events.

A decision this spring to move from a pandemic-to-endemic approach — or learning to live with the virus — seemed like the right thing to do based on data from other jurisdictions with similar vaccination rates, Kenney told a news conference.

“It is now clear that we were wrong, and for that I apologize,” Kenney said.

Alberta has declared a state of public health emergency and is taking immediate action to stave off the ongoing crisis in the health-care system, the premier said.

“To prevent an ongoing crisis, we must do three things urgently,” he said.

“First, we must maximize our health-care capacity. Secondly, reduce transmission of the virus by reducing interaction with other people. And thirdly, we have to get as many people as possible vaccinated.”

Without interventions, Kenney said, Alberta hospitals may run out of staff and intensive care beds within the next 10 days.

Restrictions — and an exemption program

The new measures include restrictions on restaurants, indoor gatherings, weddings and funerals, retail, entertainment venues, and indoor sport and fitness. 

In recent weeks, the government had faced repeated calls from doctors, the Opposition NDP and business groups to introduce a vaccine passport, as other provinces have done.

The government’s response is what it calls a “restrictions exemption program.”

Kenney said the government “reluctantly decided” to bring in the program despite his previous concerns about vaccine passports.

“I had earlier committed not to introduce proof of vaccination because of concerns I had around privacy rights,” he said.

“But the government’s first obligation must be to avoid large numbers of preventable deaths. We must deal with the reality that we are facing. We cannot wish it away. Morally, ethically and legally, the protection of life must be our paramount concern.”

Under the program, vaccine-eligible Albertans will be required to provide government-issued proof of immunization or a negative COVID-19 test to patronize businesses and social events that apply for exemptions under the program.

To enter these establishments, which include restaurants, bars and indoor organized events, people aged 12 and older will be required to show their proof of vaccination or a recent negative test result.

“No one will be compelled to get vaccinated against their wishes, and a negative test option will be offered as an alternative,” Kenney said. “But with unvaccinated patients overwhelming our hospitals, this is now the only responsible choice that we have.”

Some of the new public health measures begin Thursday. They include:

Working from home will be mandatory unless an employer determines a physical presence is required. Indoor private gatherings for fully vaccinated individuals are limited to a single household, plus one other household, to a maximum of 10 people. There are no restrictions on children under the age of 12. Eligible people who are unvaccinated are not permitted to attend any indoor private social gathering. Outdoor private social gatherings are limited to a maximum of 200 people, with two-metre distancing maintained at all times. Places of worship must limit attendance to one-third of fire code capacity. Face masks will be mandatory and physical distancing will be required between households. No attendance restrictions on outdoor events and facilities, but two-metre physical distancing must be in place. Schools will be required to have mandatory masking for students in Grade 4 and up, plus staff and teachers in all grades. Exemptions will be available for schools with alternate safety plans. Indoor children’s sport and recreation activities are permitted, with requirements for physical distancing and masking where possible.

Other measures take effect next Monday:

Restaurants will be limited to outdoor dining only, with a maximum of six people per table. Liquor sales will continue to end at 10 p.m., consumption will stop at 11 p.m. Indoor weddings and funerals will be limited to 50 attendees or 50 per cent fire code capacity. No indoor receptions will be required. Outdoor ceremonies for weddings and funerals must be limited to 200 people. Liquor restrictions will apply. Attendance at retail, entertainment and recreation facilities will be limited to one-third fire code capacity. People will only be permitted to attend with their household or two close contacts for those living alone. No indoor sport, fitness and recreation activities for adults will be permitted. One-on-one training or workouts will be permitted but with three-metre distancing.

Dr. Deena Hinshaw, the province’s chief medical officer of health, said Albertans must meet the challenge the fourth wave is presenting, especially as health-care capacity is stretched nearly to the limit. 

“To ask Albertans yet again to step up, to protect each other through activity restrictions after all we have been through, is agonizing. And yet it is absolutely necessary,” Hinshaw said. “Our hospitals cannot sustain care for all Albertans with the dramatic and rapid increase of COVID patients that we are seeing.”

As of Wednesday’s update, there were 877 people hospitalized with COVID-19, including 218 in intensive care. 

Alberta also reported 1,609 new cases of COVID-19 and 24 new deaths, the highest number of deaths reported in one day in the province’s fourth wave.

“That is one person’s life lost for every hour of the day,” Hinshaw said. “Every death is a reminder of the seriousness of this virus and why these actions that are being taken today are so critical.”

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