In a matter of days, the Alberta government will lift all remaining COVID-19 public health restrictions that have been in place for most of the pandemic.
As of Aug. 16, masks will be completely optional except in certain settings like acute care or continuing care facilities, and people who test positive for COVID-19 will not be required to quarantine anymore. Isolation hotels and quarantine support will also no longer be available and by month’s end, COVID-19 tests will only be offered to people who need to go to hospital or see a physician.
This is on top of measures that were removed in late July, like asymptomatic testing and mandatory quarantine for close contacts of COVID-19 cases.
The province has cited its vaccination rates for bringing COVID-19 quarantine, isolation and other measures in line with those used for influenza and other viruses. As of Aug. 5, 66.4 per cent of Albertans aged 12 and older have been fully vaccinated. Just over 76 per cent of the those eligible for vaccination have received at least one dose. While these numbers are positive, Alberta ranks almost last among provinces for vaccination, only slightly better than Saskatchewan. What’s more, only 56.5 per cent of the total population has been vaccinated, which is far from herd immunity.
Reaction to the government’s eased COVID-19 approach has been mixed, though it appears there are more naysayers than those who support the move delivered by chief medical officer of health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw. Concern is mounting about the plan amid rising COVID cases that are fuelled by the highly contagious Delta variant — the province reported 1,017 positive tests over three days, Aug. 6-8 — and what the medical community is calling the start of the fourth wave.
Certain sectors of the economy like the live events and meetings industry are particularly on edge given the financial devastation already wrought by the pandemic. Adding ‘salt to the wound’ is the industry continues to make headlines for all the wrong reasons, with virus surges worldwide often attributed to so-called super-spreader events. This has hit particularly close to home of late as the first major ‘post-pandemic’ event in the province, Calgary Stampede, is linked to a growing number of positive COVID results. While the government has continued to say that “so far” the Stampede does not appear to be a driver of increasing cases, numbers are now highest in the province’s most populous city, which has more than triple Edmonton’s active cases.
Given all this, it’s no wonder those in the events and meetings industry are concerned about possible fallout from Alberta’s chosen pandemic path. It continues to be the case in Saskatchewan, which lifted all public health rules more than a month ago on July 11.
“The decision is very bittersweet,” says Eleven Events’ Jodi Rodriguez. “It is wonderful to be planning some in-person events again; however, I truly believe we will be in a fourth wave by the beginning of fall.”
The number of COVID cases in Saskatchewan has been rising since July. The province’s vaccination rate is the lowest in the country with just over 65 per cent of people 12 and older fully vaccinated.
“The pandemic did not disappear overnight with the lifting of restrictions,” says Rodriguez. “A slower approach, in my opinion, would have been far safer.”
Rodriguez is particularly worried that public health measures will be mandated once again, which could potentially impact her business’s scheduled events. While all remaining 2021 events are either hybrid or virtual, Eleven Events’ in-person offerings are nearly fully booked for 2022.
“Planning, postponing and pivoting all costs money,” says Rodriguez, whose business, like many others, was brought to its knees at the beginning of the pandemic.
It was a particularly trying time given Eleven Events was just hitting its stride in March 2020, roughly two years after its founding. All of the company’s contracts either cancelled or postponed indefinitely within a matter of days. Fortunately, a couple innovative clients decided to shift from in-person to virtual offerings within a couple months, says Rodriguez, so ‘downtime’ was minimal.
“We also have several content management clients that kept us busy over 2020, which literally saved the company,” she adds.
The thought of moving backwards after great strides have been made due to the government’s (poor) decision-making is worrisome; however, Rodriguez remains cautiously optimistic and is doing everything to create a safe and secure environment at Eleven Events’ events. In addition to following COVID protocols, her team ensures ample room for social distancing, sets up hand sanitizing stations and provides face masks, if wanted.
While clients haven’t specifically requested anything further, such as proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test, she recognizes this may be the future of large in-person gatherings in Saskatchewan, as it is in other places around the world.
Only time will tell. And the same goes for how both Saskatchewan and Alberta will fare in the face of their new pandemic policies.