A gradual reopening of Alberta’s economy could lead to the largest wave of COVID-19 and the most draconian restrictions the province has seen to date, a group of Edmonton doctors has warned.

The prediction, made by the Edmonton Zone Medical Staff Association’s (EZMSA) COVID-19 Pandemic Committee, is based partly on the government’s own COVID-19 modeling made public last week and also on the continued community spread of highly transmissible variants.

“We’re going to be hit very, very hard,” committee co-chair Dr. Noel Gibney told CTV News Edmonton.

“They told us exactly what’s going to happen. And so, to us, it’s completely illogical, knowing this, why they’re going to go ahead,” Dr. Gibney said of Alberta’s plans to ease restrictions on restaurants and gyms on Feb 8.

The modelling, unveiled Jan. 25 by health minister Tyler Shandro, projected Alberta could see upwards of 10,000 new COVID-19 cases per day and 3,500 hospitalizations by mid-March if the variants were allowed to spread unchecked.

At that point, Alberta had identified 25 cases of the variants first detected in South Africa and the United Kingdom, and said one case was not linked to international travel, meaning it had likely already spread in the community.

As of the most recent update, Alberta had confirmed 68 variant cases and had seen more evidence of community spread, including four cases connected to an Edmonton-area daycare.

“The challenge we’ve got is that even if we just keep our current restrictions in place, we’re going to have a problem,” said Dr. Gibney.

He said continuing to relax restrictions every three weeks amid falling hospitalization numbers could lead to a scenario similar to the one outlined in the government modelling.

“Sometime, probably middle to end of March, we’re going to be in the middle of a very large third wave, probably much worse than anything we’ve seen to date,” Dr. Gibney said.

Dr. Gibney believes the so-called third wave could be dramatic enough to force Alberta to institute the type of lockdown-type restrictions seen in foreign jurisdictions, such as Italy and Australia, throughout the pandemic.

“We’ve never really had a lockdown (in Alberta). We’ve had restrictions,” said Dr. Gibney. “If indeed what the minister has told us is correct, and we believe it is, and we have 10,000 new cases a day and 3,500 people in hospital, then that is one of the possibilities we're going to have to consider.”

Gibney, along with fellow committee co-chair Dr. James Talbot, sent a letter to Shandro on Wednesday conveying their concerns over the staged reopening plan, calling it “premature and highly risky,” coupled with the current lack of vaccine supply.

Feb 3/21
Letter to @GoAHealth
Serious Concerns Regarding Relaxation of Current Restrictions
-thank you Albertans
-higher transmissible & fatal variants
-lack of vaccine supply
-premature to relax restrictions
-issues with 4 stages
-enforcing restrictionshttps://t.co/FVTIVdsSzX pic.twitter.com/GyQj0vVOwT

— #savePFSP Edmonton Zone Medical Staff Association (@EZMSA2) February 4, 2021

Alberta’s chief medical officer of health said there is currently no threshold or set number of variant cases that would impact the decision to lift restrictions on Monday.

“What we are watching closely is whether or not we are seeing an increased transmission rate. That has not happened,” Dr. Deena Hinshaw said Thursday, adding that variant cases make up a small proportion of Alberta’s overall active cases.

Plans to lift restrictions on restaurants, gyms and kids activities were announced by Premier Jason Kenney four days after the modelling was made public.

Step 1 of the four-step plan was triggered when hospitalization dipped below 600.

As of Thursday, 513 Albertans were hospitalized with COVID-19, including 93 in ICU.

“To me, it would make more sense to stay where we are (and) keep following the number of these variant COVID strains very, very closely,” said Dr. Gibney.

“It’s unfair to restaurant owners, bar owners, gym owners, anybody who is looking forward to reopening,” he said. “I’d hate to see the business owners ordering in supplies, ordering in food, and then a few weeks later have to close everything right down again."

The general manager of Craft Beer Market in downtown Edmonton said they are planning to open their doors for in-person dining on Monday.

Joanna Britton said since the restaurant and pub already offers takeout options, their reopening is not as costly as it would be if they were shut down completely, and mainly involves bringing back staff.

“We need to be open. We want to be open. We’re a business. We have team members who want to come back to work,” said Britton.

“If the government says we need to be closed to be safe, we’re obviously going to follow those rules.”

Not all restaurants are looking at Monday with the same anticipation. On Friday, a coalition of independent Edmonton restaurants published an open letter calling on the government to adopt a ‘COVID Zero’ plan.

Please call or email your elected representative and ask them to adopt a COVID zero plan. The safety of our industry workers depends on it. #YEGfood #YEG #COVIDZero pic.twitter.com/Iuco42PC3R

— Edmonton Independent Hospitality Community (@YEGIHC) February 5, 2021

“The longer we try to operate under the falsehood that we are saving livelihoods and lives we will lose more lives, more businesses and more livelihoods,” read the letter, supported by at least 27 Edmonton businesses, including Cartago and Northern Chicken.

Kenney has said on numerous occasions that Alberta’s goal has never been zero COVID-19 cases, a strategy that would likely involve prolonged and stringent lockdown measures.

An Alberta-based scientist has said Alberta could achieve zero cases in less than two months.