Albertans flocked to a two-day rodeo protesting COVID-19 restrictions over the weekend as the province became North America’s No. 1 pandemic hotspot.
The province’s rate of daily case numbers has surpassed any state in the U.S. and nearly doubled the next closest province, Ontario, at 41.3 cases per 100,000, according to University of Calgary economist Trevor Tombe, who tracks vaccination campaigns. Alberta’s active case count approached 23,000 on the weekend.
On Saturday, the same day the province announced a record-breaking 2,433 new COVID cases, media reported that thousands attended the No More Lockdown Rodeo Rally at a private property in Bowden, a small town an hour north of Calgary, where unmasked crowds packed into the bleachers.
Organizers said on Facebook prior to the event, “We will not stand by idly and watch as not only our businesses but also our western heritage and more importantly, our basic human rights are ripped out of existence by the tyrannical beings of our current world.”
Alberta Health Services and RCMP warned organizers the long-advertised event was not allowed under Alberta’s 10-person outdoor gathering maximum. But on the day of, a couple RCMP officers showed up briefly and left, according to CTV.
Premier Jason Kenney tweeted about the rodeo on Sunday, calling the gathering “disturbing.”
“Not only are gatherings like this a threat to public health, they are a slap in the face to everybody who is observing the rules to keep themselves and their fellow Albertans safe,” he wrote.
Meanwhile, though, his government has gone into hiding, announcing Sunday it will suspend the spring sitting of the legislature until at least May 17 to avoid members of government travelling and congregating.
“Suspending proceedings is the right thing to do as case counts increase. We continue to strongly encourage all Albertans to follow their local health guidelines and get vaccinated when it’s their turn,” house leader Jason Nixon said in a statement. Members of the legislative assembly can be called back to work in the event of an “emergency,” which apparently is a threshold the current COVID outbreak does not meet.
NDP opposition leader Rachel Notley called Kenney “cowardly” for effectively shutting out questions from the opposition about school safety, triage protocol in hospitals, and how restaurant staff are expected to enforce COVID-19 restrictions while patios remain open. Retail stores also remain open in Alberta.
Lorian Hardcastle, associate professor of health, law and policy at the University of Calgary, said there should be no reason the legislature can’t sit virtually as other provinces and the federal government have done.
“In my view, cancelling it means that they are not poised to legislate if necessary, which is obviously problematic,” Hardcastle said.
“The public needs to feel like they aren’t hiding from accountability and shirking their responsibilities.”
Kenney has faced heavy criticism for his government’s on and off again COVID-19 restrictions, often lagging behind other jurisdictions or leaving tough decisions up to cities.
But 15 of his own United Conservative Party MLAs signed a letter last month saying they want fewer restrictions and formally oppose the province’s already relatively lax COVID-19 restrictions.
Hardcastle said Kenney is trying to please both sides and ending up with ineffective rules and enforcement.
“Premier Kenney has really tried to walk the line between appeasing the people who live in Alberta who are opposed to restrictions and the people who want more restrictions,” Hardcastle said. “And by walking that line, I think we end up with these sort of confusing half-measures that are difficult to follow, difficult to understand, and I think that’s contributed to compliance being poor.”
A week ago, Kenney said no to new restrictions, saying people would likely ignore them anyway. Then on Thursday he announced some new rules, sending junior high and high schools back to online classes and cancelling indoor fitness activities.
Alberta’s oil camps have been a major driver of COVID-19 outbreaks, and the northern oil hub, the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, has the highest daily case rate in the province. In the south, several major outbreaks have been linked to meat-packing plants that remain open.
Churches have led some of the strongest opposition to restrictions, with Calgary’s Street Church Ministries continuing to hold large services and protests and apparently denying inspectors access to their building. GraceLife Church in Edmonton defied public health orders for weeks before it was eventually shut down and fenced off, sparking large protests.
Only Ontario, which has more than three times Alberta’s population, has more active COVID-19 cases at 37,200.
But while Alberta is leading the pack, Canada’s overall numbers have been trending upward, surpassing even the United States. On Sunday, Canada’s rolling seven-day average was 204 cases per one million people, compared to 145 in the U.S. according to Our World in Data.
Just under 34 percent of Canadians had received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine Sunday, compared to almost 44 percent of Americans. Canada’s federal government has been criticized for playing catch-up on vaccines after a messy initial rollout.
Canada is also grappling with three variants, recording 4,469 cases of the deadly P1 variant as of Sunday believed to have originated in Brazil. Alberta and neighbouring British Columbia account for the majority of P1 cases.
Canada has reported 1,234,180 cases of COVID-19 and 24,300 deaths so far.
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