May 4, 2021
EDMONTON — Alberta has the highest COVID-19 infection rates of any region on the continent right now, and Premier Jason Kenney is faced with the tough task of implementing new restrictions to help bring the pandemic under control, while also managing to convince intransigent Albertans to actually follow the rules.
On Tuesday evening, Kenney spoke to Albertans, announcing a new suite of restrictions, including further limits on capacity of retail and worship, limits on outdoor gatherings, the closure of tattoo and other personal services and the end of in-person dining — even if outdoors.
As of Friday, all students in kindergarten to Grade 12 will move to at-home learning, with a return after the May long weekend.
“We will not permit our health care system to be overwhelmed. We must not and we will not to force our doctors and our nurses to decide who gets care and who doesn’t,” Kenney said.
As of Tuesday, Alberta had 671 people in hospital, 150 of whom were in intensive care. At the height of the second wave of the pandemic in December, there were more than 900 in hospital, and only briefly were ICU admissions above 150.
In one of the highest-profile signs of pandemic discontent in the province, an anti-lockdown rodeo was held was held over the weekend in Bowden, with thousands coming out to experience a bit of western culture while showing their lack of regard for health restrictions.
“Apparently they don’t care about COVID … apparently they don’t care, or are somehow choosing to ignore, the hundreds of their fellow Albertans in hospital and intensive care beds right now, battling this disease,” Kenney said on Monday. “The reason we are at this critical stage of the pandemic in Alberta … is precisely because, for whatever reason, Albertans are ignoring the rules we currently have in place.”
The premier was expected to announce new measures when he addresses the province on Tuesday evening, and then speak to reporters at a news conference on Wednesday morning.
Bowden Mayor Robb Stuart said he couldn’t understand why the rules put in place don’t seem to have been enforced, even though he tried to get the premier’s office and his MLA’s office involved.
“I was a hockey referee, and I blew the whistle when I saw a penalty,” Stuart said. “To me, they seem to see that there’s a penalty but they don’t blow the whistle.”
As of Monday, Alberta had 658 people in hospital, 154 of whom were in intensive care. At the height of the second wave of the pandemic in December, there were more than 900 in hospital, but never as many as 154 in intensive care.
Throughout the pandemic, polling has shown that Alberta has some hotspots when it comes to objections to public-health restrictions. However, polling from November 2020, during the second wave, also showed that when the province brought in a round of more stringent restrictions, 51 per cent of Albertans felt they didn’t go far enough — suggesting a minority, albeit a loud one, is opposing public-health restrictions.
The question, of course, is why aren’t people listening? And how do you convince them to follow? There are any number of factors why cases are high, from lack of compliance to workplace outbreaks and potentially insufficient government policies.
Melanee Thomas, a political scientist at the University of Calgary, points to issues of compliance, which doubtless exist, but the explanation isn’t the stereotype of Albertans being libertarian yahoos.
“I can see people from outside Alberta being like ‘there’s gotta be something weird about being in Alberta that makes people do stupid (stuff) there.’ It’s the same thing as urban dwellers looking at the countryside,” said Thomas. “That’s not how it works. It’s a tempting and easy explanation but it’s not the correct one.”
Instead, Thomas points to a lack of enforcement, which has been prominently on display, not just with the rodeo in Bowden, but with GraceLife Church, which held services in violation of the rules, but only the lead pastor, James Coates, was charged.
While some people are happy to follow restrictions to protect one another, Thomas said, the research clearly indicates some people will only be motivated by threat of punishment.
“What we needed to do right out of the gate was have very clear rules that were clearly communicated, and sanctions that were clearly and very publicly applied. We didn’t do that,” Thomas said. “People who would otherwise follow the messaging that we’ve got … they see the rule-breakers, they feel stupid, then they’re more likely to break the rules too.”
Jared Wesley, a University of Alberta political scientist, said part of the issue in Alberta is that politicians have a perception of who the average Albertan is and what they’re going to tolerate — and the response has been tailored for that perceived person.
“They’ve been pretty consistent in saying that the Alberta that they know, or the Alberta that they want to see would never put up with draconian lockdown measures,” said Wesley. “That’s the lens through which policymakers are looking at the Alberta situation, whether or not that matches with what Albertans really want, or not.”
He also said that while plenty of the focus has been on scofflaws, there has been less attention paid to other areas where the virus is being spread, such as workplaces, which have, in large part, remained open in the second and third waves in Alberta.
“We know that COVID’s not appearing spontaneously in people’s homes,” said Wesley. “In other jurisdictions … when they’ve closed down businesses, the spread has stopped. So unless there’s something magical that’s happening in Alberta’s workplaces that makes them immune to COVID, then we know there’s at least some workplace spread.”