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Mission accomplished? Jason Kenney rolls the dice again on a swift reopening

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Alberta Premier Jason Kenney and Health Minister Tyler Shandro, both grinning, confirm what Albertans already knew -- we'll be reopening in time for the Calgary Stampede (Image credit: Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta).

Never mind the obvious risk or his expensive and expansive record of bad bets, Jason Kenney rolled the dice again yesterday on Alberta's pandemic reopening.

Delta variant or no variant, Alberta will be pulling the plug on almost all COVID-19 restrictions on July 1, Kenney confirmed Friday -- you can't really call it an announcement because everyone's known for days exactly what he planned to do.

What else he may be pulling the plug on remains to be seen.

"This is a happy day for Alberta," a grinning Kenney declared at an outdoor early afternoon news conference at a scenic spot overlooking the North Saskatchewan River and downtown Edmonton. "And that means, on July the first, on Canada Day, Alberta’s public health measures will be lifted and our lives will get back to normal."

"The end of this terrible time is just two weeks away," the premier exclaimed. "It's hard to believe, but it’s true!"

He all but said "Mission Accomplished," as in George W. Bush's famously premature announcement of victory in Iraq -- "we did it! you did it!" -- and he promised that "the sun is rising in Alberta, this is our time," channelling another American Republican president, Ronald Reagan.

Notwithstanding those cynics who think the timing of the reopening is probably more related to the July 9 opening of the Calgary Stampede, the traditional climax of the Conservative fund-raising season in Cowtown, the reason was said by the premier and Health Minister Tyler Shandro to be the fact Alberta reached a 70.2-per-cent vaccination rate on Thursday.

Albertans have been hearing fund-raiser style announcements all week that the number was creeping closer to that threshold, which the premier has promised repeatedly will open the door to the best Alberta summer ever.

Never mind that figure refers to first vaccinations only, or that outside the big cities the rate is as low as 40 per cent in some regions, and under 30 per cent in some communities according to the government's own statistics.

And never mind that the highly contagious Delta variant that has been ripping through the British population prompted that country's Conservative government to extend its lockdown for another month.

Kenney's got answers for that: it's your responsibility. And if you'd be more comfortable with a more cautious approach, you're probably one of those NDPers who would like society to be locked down forever.

"I know there has been lots of attention paid to two unfortunate deaths in Calgary hospitals, people who had been vaccinated and had contracted the Delta variant," he told the news conference. "These were both individuals in their 80s, with multiple co-morbidities, both of whom were in hospital before contracting COVID."

"Very frail, immunocompromised people with multiple co-morbidities are going to continue to be vulnerable to any disease like this," he said.

"The virus will circulate. Variants will emerge. The most contagious variants will become over time the dominant variants. People will get infected. Some people will get sick. Regrettably, a few people likely will pass away, as has been the case forever with the flu, with influenza."

The CBC quoted University of Alberta medicine professor emeritus Noel Gibney, co-chair of the Edmonton zone medical staff association's pandemic response committee, warning the government to expect conditions that could lead to a fourth wave and advising preparation for a return to COVID-19 restrictions.

Gibney said the Alberta reopening plan was drafted before the highly infectious Delta variant was prevalent and doesn't account for the danger it presents. "We're going to see an increase in cases," he predicted.

Naw, said the premier, accusing a reporter of irresponsibly "spreading fear" by asking about it.

"I guarantee you, though, the promoters of fear will have lots of variants to come in the future," he said.

Well, if we Albertans have learned anything after two years with Kenney in the province's top political job, it's that the man's a gambler. A chronic gambler, some might even say.

He may not waste his time in casinos -- why bother when you have literally billions of dollars to place on exciting bets with pretty good odds like who's going to win the U.S. election?

Like that bet -- which ended up costing Albertans $1.3 billion, and maybe more when the dust has finally settled -- the odds aren't completely terrible for Kenney's reopening gamble. The science on COVID-19 and the impact of the vaccines now flowing into the country thanks to the federal government suggest he could win.

This time, though, lives are at stake, so most politicians wouldn't take the risk -- and most Canadian provinces will wait until late summer or fall to reopen.

But not Kenney. He wants to be first. As the Shrek movie meme that's now a staple of social media political commentary in Alberta constantly reminds us: Some of you may die, but it's a sacrifice I am willing to make.

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:  Chris Schwarz, Government of Alberta

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