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Alberta's top doctor refuses to criticize premier for flouting pandemic restrictions

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The sky palace. Image credit: @TheBreakdownAB/Twitter

It's time for Premier Jason Kenney to acknowledge his mistake at that Sky Palace patio party and move on, you say?

Chief Medical Officer of Health Deena Hinshaw certainly seemed to think so yesterday, although she wouldn't quite admit she thought Kenney had done anything wrong in her evasive responses to reporters' questions during an uncomfortable COVID-19 media briefing.

In the face of aggressive questioning by three of the reporters at the virtual news conference, Hinshaw tried to explain why the rest of us should still obey the province's COVID mitigation rules even if the premier and his influential dining companions felt no need to do the same when the bottles were open and they thought they were far from the public's prying eyes.

And so, she extemporized to Calgary Sun columnist Rick Bell when he suggested the premier and the health minister were setting a bad example:

"With respect to role models and setting an example, I think all of us, sometimes, make mistakes as we are doing our best to follow the rules in place and so there's a variety of ways that all of us can model the way, and some of that is by, again, where we're doing our best to follow the rules in place, and there's a mistake made, that we acknowledge that and move on."

That rambling answer was the closest Hinshaw came to suggesting a course of action for Kenney, let alone criticizing him, after he was busted Tuesday night breaking COVID-19 restrictions in the company of three senior cabinet ministers, two political aides and a couple of waitrons by a mystery photographer with a very long lens.

This would be pretty dismal stuff at the best of times.

But with no sign the premier was willing to brave the questions of the press after a day in the legislature aggressively denying he had done anything wrong, it was hard not to feel embarrassed for Hinshaw as she dodged and weaved to avoid admitting the obvious. To wit: that the photographer caught Kenney and company dead to rights, breaking their own rules.

Repeatedly asked about the photographic evidence by Kevin Nimmock of CTV, Michelle Bellefontaine of the CBC, and Bell, who used up all of their rationed questions on the topic, Hinshaw stuck determinedly to her key talking point: She wasn't there and therefore can't know how far apart they were, no matter what those photographs tell our lyin' eyes.

Nimmock asked:

"You've seen the photos. It appears the premier and the ministers are not sitting two metres apart…So is the premier following the public health orders?"

Hinshaw responded:

"It's hard to say in the photos. I guess I would say I wasn't there, so I'm not certain whether or not they were exactly two metres apart. What I would say is that, again, it's important for Albertans to understand the rules that apply in those different contexts, and again that two-metre requirement is part of those outdoor social gathering requirements."

Bellefontaine took up the cause:

"In your answer to Kevin Nimmock, you indicated that you weren't there…I'm going to ask you this: from what you saw in those photos -- and those photos are all over the internet -- was the premier and his three cabinet ministers and his staff members complying with the rules for outdoor gatherings that came into effect on Tuesday under the Stage 1 reopening?"

Hinshaw:

"Again, it's difficult in a picture, depending on perspective, to know exactly. So I would say that I'm not able to say with certainty, but what's really important for Albertans to know, and again my job as the chief MOH is to insure that Albertans know the requirements, and those requirements are that in outdoor social gatherings two metres of distancing is maintained."

Bell:

"What do you have to say about what was in the picture as it relates to getting the rest of us…behaving unequivocally and unambiguously to the rules?"

Hinshaw:

"Whether or not a mistake was made really comes down to that question of distancing. It's clear that that two metres is required in outdoor social gatherings, and so, again, I'm not able to comment on that…that's not something that I can definitively say."

Hinshaw responded to each of these queries with an ambiguous smile, as if she'd known all along the talking point she'd been handed was never going to work.

Who knows what really happened, though? Certainly we Albertans will never be told.

Like his caucus members' Hawaiian and Mexican vacations last winter during the pandemic's second wave, the political fallout from Kenney's boozy rooftop party and his refusal to admit any error continued to drift over Alberta yesterday.

If you care about finally getting COVID-19 under control, the impact is dispiriting.

It remains to be seen what the long term impact of that fallout on the political health of Kenney and the United Conservative Party government will be.

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: @TheBreakdownAB/Twitter. 

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