Albertans are again allowed to socialize outside in groups of up to 10, government officials announced Thursday.

As well, personal wellness services – salons and barbershops, or tattoo shops, for example – will be allowed to reopen by appointment only and funeral service limits will be raised to 20 people. Funeral receptions will still be limited.

The changes take effect Jan. 18, Health Minister Tyler Shandro announced.

"We made these decisions very carefully and these measures were eased based on the expertise and the advice of our chief medical officer of health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw. We want to stop as a province tightening and loosening the rules. I'm sure that Albertans are tired of going back and forth themselves," he said.

Shandro added the changes take into consideration the infectiousness of the disease's two new variants, which have resulted in higher case counts elsewhere in the world.

"As of right now, we can't say when measures will be eased next, but we are monitoring the situation closely and we are meeting regularly with Dr. Hinshaw. If we continue to see case rates and hospitalizations and our ICU admissions continue to slow down and go down, we will continue to open things up. It's that simple. Let's remember, the numbers will reflect how well we are doing and it's up to us to keep doing well."

The restrictions being eased were enacted in December. Officials said there had not been significant transmission in personal services businesses, but that the goal then was to reduce the number of close contacts between Albertans.

Now, the low-risk settings can be reopened a fraction.

"Our trend in December was escalating quickly, and our trend today is coming down in a reassuring way," Hinshaw said.

The government officials would not say when or at what benchmark other restrictions would be eased.

"This is us continuing to do what we've always promised throughout the pandemic, which is to look at the data and to make decisions that are targeted… That's exactly what we've done today, what we've done throughout the pandemic and we're going to continue to do going forward," Shandro commented.

967 NEW CASES, 21 DEATHS, 67K VACCINES

That afternoon, Hinshaw reported 967 new cases of COVID-19, as well as 21 related deaths.

A total of 806 Albertans are in hospital with the disease, 136 of whom are in ICUs across the province.

The new cases were found after more than 16,000 tests on Wednesday, leaving the province with a positivity rate of 5.8 per cent.

"I want to stress the situation remains serious. Our numbers remain high and our health system is under significant strain," the top doctor commented.

But, she said, she hoped the loosened rules would allow Albertans more opportunity to socialize while limiting in-person interaction.

Those who gather outdoors are still asked to follow other public health measures like mask wearing, physical distancing, and refraining from using indoor facilities.

"Please keep up the good work and please keep making safe choices," Hinshaw said.

She and Shandro also gave an update on Alberta's vaccination program, which has seen more than 67,000 frontline workers and vulnerable residents immunized.

On Thursday, an Edmonton respiratory therapist who was the first Albertan to receive a COVID-19 vaccine received her second dose.

 

Sahra Kaahiye, was the first person in Alberta to receive the COVID-19 vaccine on Dec. 15. The #YEG respiratory therapist received her second dose today, completing her COVID-19 immunization. #ShotofHope pic.twitter.com/uhYbPdJgJr

— Alberta Health Services (@AHS_media) January 14, 2021

Eligible health care workers were urged to book vaccine appointments for the weekend; according to the government, there were 16,000 slots over the weekend in the province, but as of the morning, only 671 on Saturday and 128 on Sunday had been filled.

BUSINESS GRANT EXPANDED

Jobs, Economy and Innovation Minister Doug Schweitzer also attended the news conference to announce an expansion of the Small and Medium Enterprise Relaunch Grant to include businesses that had opened during the pandemic.

Start-ups which launched March 1, 2020, or later could be eligible for up to $15,000 starting February.

"Nothing says Alberta like a small business owner starting off in the middle of a pandemic," he said.

"Good luck with it, make sure you continue to follow the health protocols."

The program was started to offer financial help to businesses, cooperatives and non-profits that had seen at least a 30-per cent revenue drop as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.