EDMONTON — Two members of Alberta Premier Jason Kenney’s caucus are challenging the province's COVID-19 economic restrictions and have joined a national coalition pushing against lockdowns.
Drew Barnes, the United Conservative legislature member for Cypress-Medicine Hat, and Angela Pitt, the deputy speaker of the house and chair of committees, say Albertans have not been given adequate evidence to justify the rules and real hardship and harm is resulting.
“Down here in Medicine Hat, our mental health crisis is as big as our COVID crisis,” said Barnes in an interview Tuesday.
“Let’s give people more freedoms.”
He said the province should take a more regional approach to restrictions, as was done for a while last year.
There are few infections in his region, he said, and he’d like to see businesses allowed to open up more, with additional testing and with health restrictions to keep COVID-19 in check.
Barnes added he doesn't worry about challenging government policy in the UCP caucus.
“I’m not worried about disciplinary action,” he said. “As a government backbencher, I’m not a part of cabinet. I’m not part of the decision making. It’s my job to speak up with what my constituents want.”
Pitt, the member for Airdrie, said she has been trying for months to get information out of the government to determine what evidence and rationale there is for the restrictions.
She said she and her constituents don’t, for example, understand why restaurants were allowed to reopen this week to in-person dining while gym and fitness centres can't have group workouts.
“There’s a lot of confusion around some of the restrictions that have been put in place because of the lack of information sharing,” said Pitt in an interview.
“My constituents are having a hard time buying in, as are many Albertans across the province. And you see that in the ways of civil disobedience.
“Albertans aren’t buying into this because the case has not been made.”
Pitt and Barnes have signed on to the End the Lockdowns national caucus, part of a group called Liberty Coalition Canada.
The group includes past and present federal, provincial and municipal politicians, including Paul Hinman, the interim leader of the Wildrose Independence party, a right-wing rival to Kenney’s United Conservatives.
“After careful examination and scrutiny of mitigation measures undertaken by all levels of government, it is now evident that the lockdowns cause more harm than the virus and must be brought to an end,” writes the caucus on the Liberty website.
Jerrica Goodwin, Kenney’s spokeswoman, responded in an email statement.
“MLAs are elected to represent their constituents, and are able to do so,” she said.
“Alberta's restrictions are based on expert medical advice.
“What's more, Alberta has resisted the total lockdowns of some other jurisdictions. For example, while some other provinces fully shut down non-essential retail, Alberta did not. And just yesterday, restaurants and bars were allowed to reopen, with specific requirements, as part of our phased, evidence-based plan.”
Kenney’s government has been getting squeezed from both sides of the lockdown debate as it works to keep the economy afloat and the pandemic in check.
Alberta's current economic restrictions have been in place since mid-December when surging COVID-19 case numbers put daily infections at 1,800 and those in hospital with the virus at 800.
The numbers have been dropping ever since. Daily case counts are well under 300. On Tuesday, there were 427 people in hospital with COVID-19.
The rules initially limited restaurants to take out only.
Retailers and faith-based services remain capped at 15 per cent capacity, and entertainment venues like museums and movie theatres are closed. Indoor gatherings are banned and outdoor get-togethers are capped at 10 people.
The government began reopening the economy this week after some restaurants opened illegally to in-person dining, arguing if they didn’t violate the rules they would have to close for good.
Also, GraceLife church, just west of Edmonton, had been hosting 300 congregants at Sunday services, calling the pandemic a deliberately overblown attempt to restrict personal liberties. The church's pastor was charged by RCMP on Monday with violating the Public Health Act.
Meanwhile, some doctors and the Opposition NDP have accused the government of risking a resurgence of cases by reopening the economy just as exponentially more contagious forms of the novel coronavirus arrive in Alberta. On Tuesday, the province had detected a total of 104 variant cases.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 9, 2021.
Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press