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Alberta replaces half-measures with slightly tougher half-measures to fight pandemic

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Alberta Premier Jason Kenney. Image: Alberta Newsroom/Flickr

Premier Jason Kenney finally resurfaced yesterday, looking healthy enough, to respond to Alberta's surging COVID-19 infection rate with new half-measures not all that distinguishable from the old half-measures.

Bars, restaurants and non-essential businesses will be allowed to remain open with reduced capacity, ditto for megachurches that will still be permitted to fill hundreds of their thousands of seats on a Sunday morning, plus movie theatres, galleries and, naturally, casinos.

Indoor social gatherings, however, are banned -- even in private homes. How that rule will be enforced, though, is not clear, especially since the premier disdainfully turned up his nose at what he termed a "so-called snitch line."

Probably, it just won't be. After all, Alberta remains as committed as ever to Premier Kenney's notion the pandemic can be beaten by asking Albertans to behave themselves and threatening to yell at them if they don't.

There were some tougher measures announced that could help.

"I am declaring a state of public health emergency in Alberta," the premier said at the afternoon COVID-19 briefing in Edmonton. Additional measures will include a mandatory masks requirement in indoor workplaces in Calgary and Edmonton, and online classes for Grade 7 to Grade 12 students from next Monday until they go back to school in January.

Government employees who were needlessly dragged back to the office after proving they could efficiently do their jobs from home will be sent home again. You can read the full list of measures here.

Still, it sure looks like public health policy in Alberta is now being guided by Restaurants Canada and the Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses, not the chief medical officer of health.

This is likely to work as well as it already has, which is to say not very well at all, so brace yourselves for a long, difficult winter here in Wild Rose Country.

And, Kenney warned, "if we do not start to bend the curve with this latest round of measures and greater effort by Albertans, let me be blunt, we will impose stricter measures, likely in about three weeks' time."

Readers are entitled to feel skeptical. Kenney has said this kind of thing before and nothing much happened.

If you're one of those frightened Albertans who think the public health experts are probably right and we need a short, sharp circuit-breaker lockdown to get the virus under control, you're out of luck. Again.

But don't worry, you'll probably have plenty of reasons to plead for the same thing again in two or three weeks.

If you're part of the nutty fringe of anti-maskers that apparently makes up a considerable portion of the United Conservative Party's base, you probably won't be happy either, since we haven't yet gone full South Dakota. But at least you can take comfort from the fact Kenney appears to take you more seriously than he does the medical profession.

And if you're an exhausted front-line health care worker praying for a circuit-breaker lockdown, you certainly won't be pleased with the patronizing little lecture the premier directed at you yesterday. "I would ask people who have the certainty of a paycheque, particularly a government paycheque, to think for a moment about those individuals whose entire life savings are tied up in businesses ..."

He continued:

"I would ask them to think about the data from the Canadian Federation of Independent Business and Restaurants Canada which indicates that based on surveys as many as 40 per cent of our 13,000 restaurants and hospitality businesses might not be able to survive a second shutdown. So, for some, perhaps, it's a little bit easy to say just 'flick a switch, shut 'em down.' …"

Chief Medical Officer of Health Deena Hinshaw apparently spent eight hours with "the COVID cabinet committee" yesterday explaining her recommendations, Kenney told a reporter in a complaining tone. Given what the government decided to do, it's hard to believe she would have considered it time well spent.

There were 1,115 new cases of COVID-19 in Alberta the day before yesterday, and 16 additional deaths.

Well, Kenney promised to restore the "Alberta advantage." We just didn't think it would be for viruses, not their hosts.

Finance Minister Travis Toews applies a little gloss to the economic forecast

Meanwhile, earlier in the day, Finance Minister Travis Toews tried to put an upbeat gloss on the other big government statement of the day, a scheduled second-quarter update on the province's gloomy fiscal situation.

"While there is a long road ahead to full recovery, Alberta's economy is gradually emerging from the depths of the downturn," he said, no doubt signalling one of the government's emerging pre-election talking points.

Toews seemed to be grasping at straws, like a slight improvement over the deficit predictions in the first quarter and a slightly more hopeful GDP growth forecast, to reach this conclusion.

Of course, he wouldn't be an Alberta Conservative if he hadn't also trotted out one of the key shibboleths of the austerity cult, the claim the public sector "does not create jobs or generate wealth."

This is, of course, balderdash. Mainstream economists wrote this off as an austerian delusion long ago. But it lives on, zombie-like in UCP Alberta.

If we only apply a little more austerity to the public sector, Toews would like us to believe, soon it will be morning again in Alberta.

No matter what you think about the public sector, COVID-19 and the continuing decline of the oil industry say it ain't so.

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions at The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald.

Image: Alberta Newsroom/Flickr

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