St. Albert city facilities will sign on to a vaccine passport system following the province’s newly announced health restrictions, council heard during a special meeting Thursday morning.
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney introduced several new public-health restrictions Wednesday evening, many of which only apply to businesses that don’t sign on to the vaccine passport system, referred to by the government as a “restrictions exemption program.” This program will require proof of vaccination or a negative rapid COVID test.
Beginning Sept. 20, businesses such as retail, entertainment, and recreation facilities that do sign on to the program must limit capacity to one-third of fire core occupancy and require masking and physical distancing.
For restaurants, bars, pubs, and nightclubs that don’t take on the program, indoor dining is not permitted.
Instead of leaving city facilities such as Servus Place, Fountain Park, and the Arden Theatre subject to these restrictions, council voted to implement the restrictions exemption program.
Coun. Wes Brodhead, who brought forward the motion, described his rationale, saying that Alberta is in “deep trouble” with the number of COVID-19 cases and exceptional impact on the health system.
“As the premier said, this is a crisis of the unvaccinated,” Brodhead said. “This decision allows those who have participated in the vaccination program or who are willing to do the rapid testing to participate in life as close to normal as possible.”
Without a public-health order released by the province to guide decision making, some aspects of council’s discussion remained up in the air.
For example, a full picture of what proof of vaccination will look like, or what the restrictions exemption program could mean for masking if a municipality wished to keep some form of mandate, are still unclear.
“Council needs to be on standby for a second special council meeting if, when the orders come out, we need to tweak or add the masks back in,” Mayor Cathy Heron said.
Because of these unknown details, the motion before council did not give a specific date for implementation, such as Sept. 20, but said the program will be implemented “as soon as reasonably possible.”
The vote passed unanimously, with Coun. Sheena Hughes absent from the meeting.
Order's affect on federal election up in the air
Council had some trepidation about the fact that Servus Place will become a federal voting station on Sept. 20.
“At this point, we are unsure whether, if council implemented the restriction exemption program, we could operate that in parallel with the federal election, because we can’t restrict anyone’s right to vote,” chief administrative officer Kevin Scoble said.
David Leflar, city director of legal and legislative services, said he is not sure whether the provincial health order will deal with the provincial election or not, but he “certainly hopes it does.”
When Heron asked whether there could be special accommodations for unvaccinated individuals to vote outside, Leflar said it was an “extremely difficult question.”
“If you try to say we’re not going to let you into a polling place if you’re unvaccinated, you’re essentially telling someone if they’re unvaccinated, they’ve lost the right to vote,” Leflar said. “That’s a serious step to take.”
The details of how Servus Place will be affected on Monday are still to be determined.
Council approves $300,000 to cover compliance cost
In the same meeting, council approved the allocation of $300,000 from the city’s stabilization fund to support potential additional expenditures to support the city in complying with the new provincial health measures.
“This is our best guess of what the maximum amount could be,” Scoble said. “This is merely intended as a bridge through this period … for continuity of operations through the next six weeks until the new council is up and running.”
Scoble said the funding would go to signage to reflect the new vaccine passport mandate, staffing costs, and third-party costs if security is needed to help enforce the passports.
MacKay, who brought forward the motion to grant the funds, said he thought the amount was “a reasonable number.”
“It will hopefully not amount to that much, but we won’t know until we actually get a final accounting as part of the year end in the next term,” MacKay said.
Heron said the city is “lucky and fortunate” they can give Scoble “this kind of resource.”
“Just think about a local restaurant here in St. Albert, who obviously — with weather like today — is going to want to have a passport program so they can have indoor dining,” Heron said. “It’s a mess and I feel bad for those small- to medium-sized businesses that have to deal with this, but I also want to make sure our staff are safe and covered off.”
The motion passed unanimously with Hughes absent.
Frustration with province
Similar to the sentiments expressed by members of council following the province’s announcement of a provincial mask mandate, councillors and the mayor expressed their frustration with the province’s decision.
Coun. Jacquie Hansen said she is going to refer to the “restrictions exemption program” a vaccine passport program.
“‘Restriction exemption program’ is just very confusing,” Hansen said.
“If the province had just said, passport program across Alberta, it applies to any non-essential facilities by Monday, then we wouldn’t even be having this meeting today,” Heron said.
Coun. Ken MacKay said he was “incredibly frustrated” with the province’s decision, specifically to restrict private gatherings for those who are fully vaccinated to two households and up to 10 people.
“Fully vaccinated people are being impacted in their own private homes,” MacKay said. “We feel somewhat penalized.”
Coun. Natalie Joly said she is “infuriated” the province is downloading these decisions to individual businesses and municipalities.
“Again, what we really need to communicate to our community and the provincial government is that we are one Alberta,” Joly said. “We all want our businesses to thrive.”