EDMONTON — Alberta Premier Jason Kenney on Tuesday banned all gatherings of more than 50 people — including weddings and funerals — as he declared a state of public emergency due to the COVID-19 outbreak.
The province announced 23 new cases of the novel coronavirus, bringing the total to 97.
Kenney's government also called off a fee fight with doctors that physicians have called an intolerable distraction as they work on the front lines to contain the spread of the virus.
"The situation is very serious and we are taking action more effectively to protect Albertans against this pandemic," Kenney said at the legislature.
He said public recreation facilities, casinos, bingo halls, bars, museums and art galleries would be closed immediately if they weren't already.
Worship services, weddings and conferences also fall under the 50-person rule.
Sit-down restaurants are being limited to half their capacity, but only up to 50 people. Take-out, delivery or drive-through service is still permitted.
Grocery stores, shopping centres, health-care facilities and airports are among the essential services that remain open.
Kenney, noting that he has been in touch with the Retail Council of Canada and supermarket chains, also urged Albertans not to hoard food and other household supplies.
"All of them assure us they have all of the supplies that are necessary to fulfil demand for the future, that supply chains and food security are not compromised. There is no need for people to engage in hoarding or panic-buying," he said.
"We do recommend that people have enough food on hand to cope through a couple of weeks given the likelihood that many people will be affected by self-isolation for 14 days.
"But there is no logical reason for people to go out and buy weeks and weeks or months of supplies."
Deena Hinshaw, Alberta's chief medical officer of health, announced the 23 new cases and said scheduled and elective surgeries are postponed until further notice. Urgent, emergency and oncology surgeries will continue as well as scheduled caesareans.
Hinshaw, who had placed herself in self-isolation Monday, was back in person for Tuesday's briefing after her test for the virus was negative.
Alberta has gone from one case to 97 in 12 days. Asked to assess that total number, Hinshaw said one encouraging aspect is that most of the cases are travel-related, and very few are community-acquired.
"What we need to do now is raise our efforts to prevent more community transmission," she said.
The pandemic arose during an ongoing dispute between doctors and the province over changes to fees and billing that were to be unilaterally imposed by the province April 1.
Doctors had said a change to how they could bill for more complex patient visits was sowing confusion and anxiety. They predicted it could force some rural and family practices to close.
Health Minister Tyler Shandro had resisted calls to delay the changes, but relented on Tuesday and said they would not go ahead as planned.
"During these unprecedented times, we want to ensure physicians on the front lines can focus solely on providing patient care," Shandro said in a statement.
Dr. Christine Molnar, representing physicians as head of the Alberta Medical Association, called the decision, "a significant step in supporting patients and physicians."
NDP health critic David Shepherd said Shandro made the right decision but called it a "small step" given the government is imposing other changes to doctor compensation and billing rules on April 1.
Also Tuesday, politicians debated into the night after the government fast-tracked rules to pass the 2020-21 budget before Wednesday.
Kenney has said this is necessary to ensure funding continuity during the pandemic, but the NDP called it an undemocratic move designed to avoid scrutiny of a budget it says compromises front-line care in health and education.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 17, 2020
Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press