Right now is not the time to lift indoor social gathering restrictions: Hinshaw

With December upon us, many Albertans may be wondering if they'll be able to welcome their family over for the holidays.

Even though Premier Jason Kenney said Monday he is considering loosening restrictions on gatherings, Alberta’s chief medical office of health said Tuesday that now is not the time.

"I don't think it's the right time to completely lift all of our indoor social gathering restrictions. So whether or not there's an easing, I don't think this is the time to turn them all off," said Dr. Deena Hinshaw Tuesday in a press conference announcing Alberta’s first case of the Omicron variant.

Hinshaw did leave the door open for potentially reducing some restrictions in the weeks ahead. 

""You have likely heard some conversations about whether or not at some point in the next week or so we might be contemplating expansion of booster eligibility. So I think, again, we need to be looking at what are the things that we have that are available to us in population protection, and then how can we potentially safely ease off restrictions without enhancing the risk too significantly."

Waiting to see if vaccines work to counter the newly-emerged Omicron variant, as well as getting booster shots in more arms, is a wise move says infectious disease specialist Craig Jenne.

"If we can determine what the risk of this variant is to vaccinated people, how well the vaccines covered, what the efficacy of a third dose could be in at-risk populations. Once we have that information, we might be able to look at making some small changes."

"It’s probably too early. But, keep in mind, if we can do these things (and) if we can enhance the other safety networks, that's how we get to the point of easing the current restrictions, (by) building safety elsewhere in the network."

Albertans can currently gather at bars, pubs, coffee shops and restaurants as long as the business is participating in the province’s vaccine passport program, however restrictions on indoor social gatherings at people's homes remain in place.

"We've been asking people since the fourth of September not to gather indoors with more than two households – and maximum 10 people – and we thank folks that have carefully followed those," Kenney said during a Monday news conference.

Those restrictions are in place for those who are vaccinated; people who aren't vaccinated against COVID-19 are currently not permitted to attend indoor social gatherings.

"We want to make sure that the rules that are in place are rules that the majority of people will follow," the premier added. 

HUGE FAMILY

Kevin Lee has a huge family. There are 80 or more people when everyone in his immediate family is together.

“That’s just my brothers and sisters and their kids,” said Lee who has 13 brothers and sisters all with large families themselves.

The current restrictions hit his family hard. Nonetheless, they expect to adhere to the rules and will limit their gatherings to small groups even if the rules change.

“This year every family will be having their own Christmas and on Boxing Day we will be having a family Zoom meeting,” said Lee.

Caterers have also been hit hard by the rules affecting gatherings. Even though businesses can host large groups if they adhere to the province's restrictions exemption program, most companies are eschewing large Christmas parties this year.

"Definitely more gatherings this year, just because last year, we weren't allowed to do that at all. But (in) very small numbers,” said Michelle Kuenz-Malec, co-owner of the Great Events Group. Kuenz-Malec says even if restrictions were lifted now, it is likely too late for most companies to put together a holiday gathering.

“I would say most corporations and small businesses have probably figured out what they want to do right now. Yeah, it's, I would say, if they haven't already decided to gather, then they're probably thinking of doing the direct meal delivery or sweets boxes or charcuterie, things like that."

Kenney said although no decisions have been made, his government is working to address the upcoming Christmas season.

"As long as ICU pressure continues to abate, we may be in a position to consider something as we move closer to the holidays," Kenney said.

"One key trigger that I've articulated is getting our total ICU pressure below our baseline of about 173 beds. We've made good progress on that thanks to the diligence of Albertans. We are today at, I believe, just over 200 total ICU patients and about 70 with COVID-19.

Some other provinces are ahead of Alberta in offering booster shots to their population. Manitoba has already expanded booster eligibility to anyone over 12 years of age. Ontario plans to do the same this week, and British Columbia says it will follow suit in January.