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MLA Drew Barnes is calling the shots for Alberta and any way you look at that, it's not healthy

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Cypress-Medicine Hat MLA Drew Barnes. Image credit: David J. Climenhaga

It looks like Drew Barnes is calling the shots for Alberta!

By any measure, Jason Kenney is a pretty bad premier. But he's not the worst we could have in the midst of a deadly global pandemic that just won't quit. No, that would be someone like Barnes, the COVID-denying, separatist-leaning MLA for Cypress-Medicine Hat.

So why is Barnes, along with the other 16 members of the United Conservative Party's unchecked COVID denial caucus, now setting the province's coronavirus-mitigation policy?

When Premier Kenney announced Thursday that the province would respond to the surging third wave of the virus by reimposing "targeted regional measures to bend the curve" until enough Albertans have been vaccinated, it was immediately apparent the measures were really targeted regional exceptions.

Almost three-quarters of the province's people, including residents of Calgary and Edmonton, were subject to the supposedly exceptional measures announced by Kenney. The remaining quarter, however, were mostly found in the UCP's rural power base.

So it seemed obvious that while the measures were presented by the premier as an effort to target communities with more serious COVID-19 infection rates, the true intention was to target rural and suburban communities with UCP MLAs skeptical of COVID mitigation to spare them from unpopular restrictions. At Thursday's news conference, Kenney claimed this was "to prevent rural areas with small populations from being unfairly impacted."

Never mind that it turns out more than 20 towns, counties and municipal districts in the areas being given special treatment by the premier have levels of infection per 100,000 population far higher than in Calgary and Edmonton, which are subject to the stricter rules.

The provincial web page showing regional active cases of COVID 19 indicates Edmonton has an active case rate (per 100,000 population) of 411.5, Calgary of 550.5.

Compare this to the scary numbers for some of the places unaffected by the new rules: Okotoks (a Calgary bedroom community south of the city), 643.1; Chestermere (effectively a suburb of Calgary), 656.7; Sylvan Lake (now a suburb of Red Deer), 692.7; Strathmore (the next town beyond Chestermere to the east) 754.2; Big Lakes County, 821.6; County of Warner, 828.6; Lacombe, 888.2; Olds, 916.9; Northern Sunrise County, 1,042.3; and Banff, 1,048.2.

Obviously, the metric used to decide which communities are in and which are out doesn't focus on the highest infection rates or the best public health outcomes. It appears to have been implemented to appease as many as possible MLAs from the gang of 17.

Not all. Whether for verisimilitude or some other reason, the city of Airdrie immediately north of Calgary with a rate of 560.5 was declared to be in, while the town of Cochrane, just west of Calgary with a rate of 530.9 is out. Perhaps this is evidence of the gang of 17's disdain for cities and their citizens. Or maybe it was something that Airdrie MLA Angela Pitt, a founding member of the caucus, did or said.

Whatever it was, even some Alberta conservatives appear to be skeptical. "If the UCP government was being truthful," wrote Postmedia columnist Lorne Gunter on Friday, it would have said, "to prevent rural MLAs from revolting against the leader of their party, we are exempting their constituents from COVID restrictions even though that goes against the science."

This is an astonishing commentary from a columnist normally sympathetic to the UCP who has called global climate change "hysteria" and "alarmism orthodoxy" while insisting "the world is not going to hell in a manmade-emissions handbasket."

Clearly, given the numbers involved, a sounder and more scientifically defensible policy would have been to impose the stricter measures on the entire province and leave us to argue about whether they're rigorous enough for the present fraught circumstances. (They're not, but that's another column.)

As for Barnes, de facto leader of the gang of 17, he's been complaining about province-wide restrictions for months. "My message hasn't changed since the end of April when it was clear that regionalization could be a way to keep the economy going," he said in January.

Now that Premier Kenney has caved to his demands, he wants more. "While I am pleased to see the premier move to a more regional approach," he said in a press release Friday, "I will oppose the government's move to ban indoor fitness activities and children's sports until such time as it provides statistical evidence that COVID-19 is being spread at such facilities."

Doing what Barnes wishes might be lunacy, but what do you want to bet Kenney caves to him on that issue too, as soon as the current two-week time frame for the latest measures has expired?

There may not actually be that much light between what Kenney and Barnes think about measures to suppress COVID-19. But as premier, Kenney has to worry about the silent majority of Alberta voters growing impatient with the UCP's inconsistent, indecisive, inadequate, confusing and obviously unsuccessful approach to COVID-19.

Just as obviously, though, he's more worried about what the COVID denial caucus in the UCP's midst thinks.

That's why it seems like Barnes is calling the shots.

This is an unhealthy situation, politically and, for increasing numbers of Albertans, literally.

Alberta reported 2,433 new cases yesterday. That is the highest daily count since the start of the pandemic. The provincial positivity rate is now north of 12 per cent, also for the first time. There are now 22,504 active cases in Alberta, another record. The province continues to lead all other Canadian provinces and territories for the rate of infections over the previous seven days. Indeed, it now leads all U.S. states as well!

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 credit: David J. Climenhaga

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