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Provincial COVID-related mandate updates

Some regions are easing restrictions, which means new rules for retail and foodservice.

B.C. health officials expected to announce plan for easing some COVID 19 restrictions

British Columbia's top doctor is expected to announce a plan today for gradually easing public health restrictions aimed at curbing the spread of COVID-19.

The most recent public health orders related to gatherings, events, bars and restaurants, for example, were set to expire on Wednesday and provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry has said she would announce any changes a day earlier.

Henry also said last month people could expect some restrictions on social gatherings to be gradually lifted by next Monday, which marks Family Day.

She said the easing of restrictions would be possible in part because 90% of B.C. residents aged 12 and over have received two doses of vaccine, though she added that more people need to get a booster shot for longer-lasting protection.

B.C. reported Monday that there had been another 17 deaths linked to COVID-19 over a three-day period, while the number of people in hospital ticked down to 803, with 119 in intensive care.

The province recorded 2,701 new cases of the illness over three days, but officials have said the number is likely much higher since B.C. has reached its testing capacity.

Ontario fast tracks easing COVID restrictions, Saskatchewan ends vaccine passport 

Ontario ramped up plans to drop a raft of COVID-19 restrictions, including the province's vaccine certificate system, while Alberta schools opened Monday without mask mandates for children.

Saskatchewan residents also started the day with relaxed measures as the province lifted its proof of vaccine or a negative test requirement to enter most businesses. Meanwhile, Quebec said it would discuss ending its vaccine mandate.

As provinces tailored policies to their own COVID-19 trends, the Public Health Agency of Canada said there will be ``variability'' in when and how jurisdictions lift measures.

"With the decline of the Omicron wave, and as we transition away from the crisis phase, it is now time to rebalance our collective efforts towards a more sustainable approach to long term management of COVID-19,'' PHAC said in a statement.

"As populations and health care capacities differ across jurisdictions, there will be variability in how each province, territory and community assesses risk and responds to the needs of their respective jurisdictions.''

In Ontario, Premier Doug Ford said vaccine passports will end March 1, but masking requirements will remain for now.

Ford also said restrictions meant to lift next Monday, including capacity limits in restaurants, will instead lift this Thursday. Social gathering limits will also increase.

He insisted the change was not due to pressure from anti-vaccine mandate protesters who have occupied Ottawa and Windsor over the last several days.

Chief medical health officer Dr. Kieran Moore said the province's vaccine certificate system had "served its purpose'' and was no longer needed.

"We are now down the slope from the peak of Omicron activity,'' Moore said.

Ford said Ontario is able to soon lift restrictions because public health indicators have been improving, with the positivity rate of COVID-19 tests dropping to 13% from a peak of nearly 40%.

Ontario reported 1,369 COVID-19 hospitalizations, down from the more than 4,000 on Jan. 18. The province also reported eight more deaths linked to the virus.

In Quebec, gyms and spas, which were closed in December, reopened at half capacity.

Quebec Premier Francois Legault said he will meet with public health officials to discuss whether the province's vaccine passport system should remain. He said he still needs approval from public health officials before loosening the requirement.

"We want to remove most of the measures, but we have to be careful because of the hospital situation.''

Quebec reported Monday 17 more deaths linked to the virus and a rise of 14 COVID-19 hospitalizations, bringing the total in the province to 2,095.

Saskatchewan lifts passport 

Days of dining indoors are over for Tenille Lafontaine, who was planning to stick to takeout for Valentine's Day.

Her family visited their favourite restaurants on the weekend in anticipation of the province lifting its public health order Monday that required residents to show proof of COVID-19 vaccination or a negative test to enter most businesses.

"We're definitely not dining in until we can get into patio season, which in Saskatchewan is a ways off,'' Lafontaine said. "Even in terms of going to a shopping mall, we'll order online if we need clothes or the odd thing. It's not worth it.''

Tamara Hinz of Saskatoon said she, too, would enjoy Valentine's Day by ordering in. She and her partner had one last date at a restaurant last week.

"We definitely paused and reflected once we were there. We're not going to feel so comfortable having an impromptu dinner date like that,'' Hinz said. "It did feel bittersweet.''

Hinz said she will monitor COVID-19 trends in the coming weeks before mingling in crowds that now include the vaccinated and unvaccinated. But keeping tabs is harder now, since Saskatchewan only reports COVID-19 data once a week.

"That makes it all that more difficult for a Saskatchewan resident to assess the landscape and the risk they're putting themselves in,'' Hinz said.

For others, Premier Scott Moe's ditching the vaccine policy and the government's shift to ``living with COVID-19'' came at the perfect time.

Nik Selanos, co-owner of Memories Fine Dining and Bar in Regina, said he had a full house booked for Valentine's Day.

"This year is much bigger than last year'' when there were restrictions on gathering sizes, Selanos said.

His customers have not expressed much hesitation over dining out for Valentine's Day without the health order in place, he said.

"For the most part ? they are fine with it,'' Selanos said.

"We need to get things back to where they were. It's going to take people a lot of time to adjust to having no restrictions. As owners, we're looking forward to normalcy. It's been a rough go the past couple of years.''

Moe said last week that while the vaccine passport initially helped increase vaccination rates, the costs now outweigh the benefits.

Businesses that choose to ask for people's vaccination status should ``consult their lawyers,'' he added.

On Monday, the Saskatchewan Party government decommissioned the app that businesses used to scan QR codes for proof of vaccination. The app is no longer available for download by new users and current users have been asked to delete the app from their devices.

Some businesses and organizations have said they will continue to check people's vaccination status despite the government's decision.

Broadway Theatre in Saskatoon posted on its website and social media accounts that all patrons, staff and artists will still be required to show their vaccination status.

In a statement, the University of Regina said all registered students, faculty and staff on campus will have to continue showing vaccine passports or meet testing requirements. The policy has been lifted for those visiting campus.

The province has two remaining health orders in place. One requires people to wear masks in indoor public places and the second mandates self-isolation when someone tests positive for the virus.

Both of those orders are to expire at the end of the month.

Business owners have mixed feelings as Alberta eliminates proof of vaccine program

Alberta businesses no longer have to require proof of COVID-19 vaccination from patrons as of midnight Feb 8.

Premier Jason Kenney made the announcement in the late afternoon, giving businesses a few hours notice of the end of a major COVID-19 public health measure that has been in place since September.

Alberta's Restrictions Exemption Program, or REP, was introduced last fall in an effort to curb spiking case rates and encourage vaccination. It requires Albertans to show proof of double vaccination or a negative rapid test result to obtain entry to businesses operating under the program.

The program is the first to go as part of the province's three-step plan to lift public health restrictions.

"The restriction exemption program has served its useful purpose. It has done its job,'' Kenney told a news conference.

Not all businesses are happy.

The Alberta Hospitality Association, which represents restaurants and bar owners, wanted to see other restrictions on the industry - such as a liquor curfew, bans on live music and billiards, and rules about how many people can be seated at one table - removed before the passport program.

Instead, those restrictions remain in place until at least March 1.

"We're in favour of whatever it takes so that we can operate our businesses at 100%. If that means keeping the REP, then by all means,'' said Ernie Tsu, president of the association and owner of Calgary's Trolley 5 brewpub. "They went against all of the stakeholder groups that wrote letters in. They didn't listen to us at all.''

Earlier Tuesday, at the Rose & Crown in Banff, Alta., Vern Iskauskas said he was awaiting Kenney's announcement with a mixture of excitement and trepidation.

The owner of the long-standing pub and popular live music venue said he welcomes a move toward lifted restrictions, but thinks it's a mistake to ditch the proof-of-vaccine program first.

"I'm very open to lifting restrictions, I just hope it's done in the right way,'' he said.

"We fear losing some of the loyal customers who have come back to us because they feel safe here. We also fear that if there is a little bit of a spike in cases afterward, which could happen for a variety of reasons not necessarily associated with the REP, that our industry ... could be scapegoated again, with further restrictions placed upon us.''

Many other business owners said they feel mixed emotions over the idea of scrapping the passport.

Paul Shufelt, who owns Robert Spencer Hospitality Group, which operates a handful of Edmonton restaurants including Workshop Eatery and Woodshed Burgers, said he knows that if the province removes the mandate, business owners will have the ability to continue checking proof-of-vaccination for their own purposes.

But he said that's a tough decision to make.

"Probably more than anything, I worry for my staff on the front line, whether we go one way or the other, because those are the people that tend to feel the wrath of angry or frustrated customers,'' Shufelt said. "I don't think there is a right answer, and that's the hard part.''

"We're welcoming a return to normalcy, but I understand both sides of it,'' said Mark Petros, owner of Nick's Steakhouse and Pizza in Calgary. "A lot of our customers work at the Foothills Hospital and the Children's Hospital because we're close by, and we don't want to see the hospitals getting overloaded.''

In an emailed statement prior to the announcement, Calgary Chamber of Commerce president and chief executive Deborah Yedlin said measures like vaccine certification have helped avoid the need for more drastic restrictions. She said businesses are eager to fully open without restrictions, but public health and consumer confidence will be key to success.

"We urge close collaboration with public health officials to ensure policy decisions are informed by data, such as hospitalization rates, and complemented by adequate tools including access to testing and contact tracing,'' Yedlin said.

The Edmonton Chamber said prior to the announcement that it supported responsible health and safety measures that allow businesses to operate while protecting customers, workers and communities.

"We would hope that any decision to ease restrictions would be made in consideration of health information and supporting data,'' Jeffrey Sundquist, president and chief executive of the Edmonton Chamber of Commerce, said in an email.


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