EDMONTON — Alberta is lifting more COVID-19 public-health restrictions, including allowing more people to shop in retail stores and malls.
Health Minister Tyler Shandro says the retail limit is increasing to 25 per cent capacity from 15 per cent.
Banquet halls, community halls and conference centres can also open for meetings, while weddings of up to 10 people and funeral services with a maximum of 20 people are allowed.
Shandro says plateauing or falling case numbers combined with increasing vaccinations make the change possible.
“The situation is changing, and we need to change along with it,” he told reporters Monday.
“The time is right to keep moving safely forward.”
Among other changes, youth sports lessons and practices are expanded to include post-secondary athletes, with a cap of 10 participants.
And there can be rehearsals and performances — without an audience and confined to 10 people — for youth and adult dance, singing and theatre activities.
Indoor gatherings remain banned and outdoor gatherings are limited to 10 people.
Shandro said officials will monitor case rates in the coming days and decide as early as March 22 whether to ease the rules further.
The announcement represents the second of four previously announced steps to ease public-health rules while preventing a resurgence of COVID-19 cases that threatened to swamp the health system in December.
At that time, the province was seeing almost 1,900 new cases a day and, by early January, there were more than 900 people in hospital.
Due to restrictions announced in December, those rates have been falling.
Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta's chief medical officer of health, reported 278 new cases. There were 254 people in hospital, with 36 in intensive care. There were 4,633 active cases.
Six more people also died of COVID-19, bringing that total in the province to 1,920.
Alberta has been seeing about 30 new cases of variant strains of COVID each day over the last week. That total was at 659.
The variant cases are being watched closely, as they can spread much faster than the original strain and can swiftly hobble a health system if left unchecked.
Concern over variants has been one of the main reasons why the province did not proceed fully with the second stage last week as expected.
Instead, libraries were reopened at sharply reduced capacity and fitness centres got the green light to offer low-stress indoor group workouts such as Pilates and tai chi.
Alberta has already announced an accelerated inoculation program, given more vaccines have been approved and are being shipped, along with medially approved extensions between first and second doses.
About 297,000 Albertans have so far been vaccinated, with 91,000 getting the required second dose.
Discussion of COVID-19 dominated debate in the legislature chamber Monday.
The Opposition NDP criticized Premier Jason Kenney for allowing some of his United Conservative caucus members to publicly challenge health rules as unreasonable restrictions on freedoms.
“Why are you letting your MLAs undermine your own government’s public-health orders — orders designed, I assume, to keep people safe?” NDP Leader Rachel Notley asked Kenney during question period.
Kenney responded: “It’s called democracy.”
Notley said elected officials must be held to a higher standard to ensure Albertans follow public-health orders, telling Kenney: “Having your members challenge and subvert these laws is dangerous.”
Drew Barnes, one of the dissenting UCP caucus members, said it’s about charter-protected freedom of speech, and the responsibility of politicians to channel and amplify the concerns of those they represent.
“This is a vital part of our job,” Barnes told the house. “Differing beliefs, along with the ability to express and share them, are a key to a healthy democracy.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 8, 2021.
Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press