With 56 new cases of COVID-19 confirmed in Alberta, bringing the provincial total to 542, on Friday the provincial announced further aggressive measures designed to curb the spread of the pandemic.
“I recognize that these measures are fundamentally reshaping people’s lives,” said Deena Hinshaw, chief medical officer of health. “We know that these measures may need to be in place for many weeks, or even months. This is a delicate balance and we are implementing the restrictions that appear right for the situation in Alberta.”
New distancing measures
As of Friday, Albertans are banned from gathering in groups of more than 15 people, down from previous restrictions that allowed gatherings of up to 50 people. This limit includes family gatherings.
Albertans will no longer be able to access the services of so-called ‘close contact businesses’ such as hair salons and barbershops, tattoo studios, cosmetic services, as well as and non-emergency and non-critical health services provided by regulated health or registered professionals such as dentists, physiotherapists, masseuses, podiatrists, chiropractors and optometrists.
Non-essential retail stores — such as clothing stores, furniture stores or computer and gaming stores — must now close for customers, but Hinshaw said they would still be allowed to sell merchandise for curb-side pickup.
All dine-in services at restaurants will be closed, however take-out, drive-through and delivery service are still allowed.
At the same time, vehicle access is being suspended at all provincial parks as well as provincial recreation areas.
Joining the provincial update on Friday afternoon, premier Jason Kenney said these measures were “tough but necessary," and said they would be enforced with fines and penalties.
“The more that we comply with rules like these being recommended by our public health experts, the faster we can get through all of this and restart our economy,” Kenney said.
Federal support for businesses
Kenney applauded federal funding announcements made Friday to support small- and mid-sized businesses, including increasing the wage subsidy for qualifying businesses affected by COVID-19 and social distancing measures to 75 per cent, up from a previously announced 10 per cent.
The Canada Emergency Response Benefit still in place, providing a $2,000 per month taxable benefit for up to four months for workers who lose their income as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, including those who would not normally be covered by traditional employment insurance.
Justin Trudeau also announced Friday morning $25 billion in funding to provide interest free loans of up to $40,000 to small businesses and not-for-profits to help cover operating costs while their revenues are reduced by the COVID-19 crisis.
To qualify, these businesses and organizations will need to demonstrate they paid between $50,000 to $1 million in total payroll in 2019. Should they be able to repay the balance of the loan on or before December 31, 2022, up to a quarter of that loan may be forgiven.
The hope is that by helping small and medium sized businesses weather the storm and keep staff on payroll, they will be able to return to business as usual quickly once the pandemic has passed.
Kenney lauded the move to support businesses
“It would allow small and medium-sized employers to keep their connection with their employees during this challenging time, which will allow for a faster restart of the economy when we get. Through this,” Kenney said. “Having said that, I need to reiterate Alberta’s call for serious federal action for liquidity for our oil and gas industry.”
Predatory oil dumping
On Friday, the Western Canadian Select price of oil languished between $5 and $7 per barrel while the West Texas Intermediate price per oil was at just over $21, two-thirds less than what had been projected in budget 2020.
Kenney blamed the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) for creating “the most challenging time in the history of Canada’s energy sector” as a price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia drives the price of oil down, taking Alberta’s economy with it.
The premier said he would be speaking to congress and governors in the Unites States about taking coordinated North America-wide action to defend energy jobs and the industry as he continues to lobby the Canadian federal government, including investigating putting tariffs on foreign oil imports or curtailment across North America’s oil producers.
Kenney defended Alberta’s minister of Health Tyler Shandro after he came under fire for allegedly sending threatening emails and confronting a Calgary doctor — who lived in the same neighbourhood as Shandro and knew him from their work on the same constituency association — after Dr. Mukarram Zaidi shared a post about Shandro’s wife's business, Calgary company Vital Partners Inc.
As first reported by CBC, the post was part of a campaign of what Kenney called “defamation and harassment” including death threats that called into question the ethics of Shandro’s close business interests in a company that brokers supplementary health insurance including for services recently delisted from public health as part of recently announced cost savings measures.
Shandro’s interests have been cleared by the ethics commissioner.
In his own statement posted on social media, Shandro said that he is “first and foremost a father and a husband” in defending his wife “passionately” in emails and in his confrontation with Zaidi.
“I told Tyler he should probably stay away from social media, don’t be distracted by the trolls,” Kenney said.
Support for renters
Following repeated announcements on the federal and provincial level aimed at providing support for business and property owners, Kenney announced new protections for Alberta’s renters who find themselves unable to make rent during the COVID-19 public health crisis.
Starting immediately, tenants cannot be evicted for non-payment of rent or utilities before May 1, and rent increases are banned for the duration of crisis.
Starting on April 1, late fees on rent payments are banned for three months.
“We are expecting landlords and tenants to work together to figure out payment plans that help everyone meet financial obligations as we manage COVID-19, and we are doing further policy work on support for renters during these tough times," Kenney said.
However, evictions for criminal activity or tenants accused of damaging properties will continue.