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Jason Kenney steps up to rostrum, announces new COVID-19 restrictions, then skedaddles

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Alberta Premier Jason Kenney at his 9.5-minute speaking appearance yesterday evening. Image: Screenshot of Alberta Government video

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney stepped up to the rostrum at his hastily scheduled 6:02 p.m. "news conference" yesterday, reeled off what he proposes to do about the fact Alberta now has the worst collective case of COVID-19 in North America, and skedaddled.

The whole affair took roughly nine and a half minutes, if you don't count the two minutes of elevator music on the government website before the picture came on.

Since no questions were permitted, you can't really call it a news conference. It was more like a photo opportunity with a soundtrack. Let's call it a live-streamed announcement. Instead of sticking around to answer journalists' questions, Kenney hurried away to the more congenial and controlled circumstances of a Facebook Live session with his supporters.

Trouble was, when the dust from the premier's swift departure had dissipated like so many wisps of smoke as he dashed away, puzzled viewers were left scratching their heads about what he'd really announced. Some things were clear. Others, not so much.

The premier seemed to have two principal messages.

First, to the silent majority of Albertans furious about aggressive COVID deniers endangering their lives and frightened by the rapid spread of variants of concern when days ago the premier was promising us the best summer ever, that the government is taking serious measures to get this disease under control in jig time.

Second, to his COVID-denying base and the 17 or 18 members of his United Conservative Party's COVID-denial caucus, don't worry about it, you'll have to be bad repeatedly before this affects you.

No one will be satisfied.

So, all post-secondary classes will move online, retail stores will be allowed to stay open, but capacity will be capped at 10 per cent of fire code, worship services will be limited to 15 people, and funerals, go figure, to 10. This begins today and will last three weeks.

All students from kindergarten to Grade 12 will study at home until May 25. That commences Friday.

Hair salons and tattoo parlours will have to close, ditto fitness studios; restaurants and bars will be restricted to take out and delivery, and doctors, dentists, accountants and lawyers will see clients by appointment only (so what else is new?). That commences at midnight Sunday, late enough to save the Mother's Day restaurant trade, although at what cost remains to be seen.

The basic fine for violating public health measures will double to $2,000.

The details are found in the government's press release.

But what, you're wondering, about enforcement? "We are introducing a tougher enforcement protocol for repeat offenders," Kenney said in his announcement. (Emphasis added.) What about first-time offenders? We don't know. Remember, there were no questions.

What's more, there will be exceptions. "These stepped-up measures will take effect province-wide, with the exception of a few communities that have very low levels of spread," Kenney said.

"These new measures apply to all Albertans, businesses, organizations and service providers in municipalities or areas with more than 50 cases per 100,000 people and with 30 or more active cases," the government's news release said.

Opposition Leader Rachel Notley, the province's former NDP premier, held her own live-streamed news conference soon after Kenney's fleeting appearance.

"Albertans, you're frustrated, you're confused, you're angry and you're scared, and this announcement should have helped, but I'm afraid it has mostly just created more questions," she said.

She assailed the premier for not making the restrictions apply to the entire province.

"First and foremost, do the measures that were announced … apply across the province, or are they still being applied on the regional basis that was put forward last week? If it's the latter, it's a profile of failure. The regions described last week were based not on evidence or science, but on the location of UCP MLAs."

Restrictions, she added, "must apply consistently across the province to be effective."

Moreover, Notley said, "by making false promises and creating false hopes, he's setting up further challenges and disappointments in the weeks to come."

As for the premier's statement that only repeat offenders would be prosecuted, Notley called it "a declaration that invites more non-compliance. … He's just given people permission to offend at least once."

Unlike the premier, Notley entertained questions from reporters, telling them it sounded as if Kenney and his advisers "are making it up on the fly." It's hard to dispute that assessment.

Former Wildrose leader Brian Jean also got in brisk shot at Kenney. "When a politician rejects the people whose votes he campaigned for, it is always his fault and never theirs," Jean said in a post on Facebook. "Albertans have lost confidence in you."

"Those who didn't vote for you have concluded that you are even worse than they feared," said the second-place finisher in the 2017 UCP leadership race, which was marred by accusations of cheating by Kenney's supporters. "Those who did vote for you, know that you are not governing as they would have hoped."

Judging from last night's government news release, Health Minister Tyler Shandro, Education Minister Adriana LaGrange, and Justice Minister Kaycee Madu remain in the premier's corner. Those three, along with Chief Medical Officer of Health Deena Hinshaw and the premier, will have yet another news conference this morning.

That will be the third in as many days, all on the same topic.

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: Screenshot of Alberta Government video

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