Premier Jason Kenney again spoke to Ponoka and District Chamber of Commerce members on Oct. 19 — this time over Zoom.
When the premier last addressed the Ponoka chamber in July, 2021, the Government of Alberta had recently lifted COVID-19 restrictions in their Open for Summer campaign.
At the time, he had stated the province wasn’t concerned about the emerging Delta variant, because COVID-19 vaccinations had a high percentage rate of effectiveness against the new strain.
“I think we must make a decision as a society, yes, to be prudent, to use common sense, but move forward with confidence in the future,” he said in July.
The chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw stated on Sept. 13 that the province reopened too early, saying,“Delta has spread much more quickly and has had more severe outcomes than we anticipated.”
”According to Dr. Deena Hinshaw, there was evidence as early as July that Alberta was heading towards a devastating fourth wave,” said the NDP in a press release earlier this month.
“Alberta has the highest number of active cases of COVID in Canada by far, three times as many as BC, the province with the next highest number.”
Minister of Culture, Lacombe-Ponoka MLA Ron Orr, introduced the premier to start off the Zoom conference.
“Let me just address the fourth wave of COVID that we’re all frustrated by, that hit us because our province was frankly, with Saskatchewan, under vaccinated, and it hit us hard in the health care system,” Kenney said.
“The good news is that there’s growing evidence that this fourth wave is tapering down and off sharply and quickly now, another example of Albertans having stepped up to the plate, to protect lives, to protect our hospitals.”
Kenney added that hospitalization numbers are starting to come down and case numbers are “going in the right direction.”
According to Kenney, vaccination rates have gone up significantly over the last four or five weeks.
As a province, the vaccination rate has gone up from 78 per cent of first dose coverage to 86 per cent now, he says.
“In some of the more rural areas in central and northern Alberta that had quite low rates, things have really come around, (with) some of those areas coming up by 20 points,” said Kenney.
“So that’s a lot of lives that will be saved, that will be protected and a lot of folks who won’t end up burdening the health care system and that’s good news.”
Kenney then highlighted some of the economic advancements the province is making.
“There is growing evidence that Alberta is in an economic boom,” he said.
“I believe that by the end of this year … we will finally have fully recovered the size of the Alberta economy as it was in 2015, prior to the price collapse of energy and a series of bad government policies that drove investment out.”
The theme of the 2022 budget will be a strategy to ensure Alberta has the workforce and resources to pursue economic opportunities, he says.
Kenney cited a large movie production project being filmed in Edmonton and DOW’s recent announcement of the second largest capital investment in western Canada in the past 20 years.
The project is a net-zero carbon emitting ethylene facility east of Edmonton.
“We are very close to inking a deal on a second project of a similar scale in the petrochemical industry,” said Kenney.
“So much exciting stuff going on and we want to make sure that Ponoka and central Alberta benefit from all of this.”
Kenney then answered a few pre-submitted questions from chamber members.
When asked about the Small Medium Enterprise Relaunch Grant, Kenney answered the UCP’s aren’t planning another round of that because businesses who opt into the Restriction Exemption Program aren’t required to shut down.
He added that the province is rolling out a $2,000 grant program for businesses who are complying with the REP.
One question asked if the government would consider making the REP mandatory, therefore taking the onus off of businesses to make that decision, as some business owners have been harassed for participating.
“When we decided that we had to bring in this program to avoid business closures, but (also) to slow transmission last month … we wanted to give business operators a choice as to what worked best for them,” he said.
“I do regret that in some areas, that business operators have been threatened or harassed.”
He added he has asked the health ministry to come forward with recommended modifications to the REP.
“I’d like to hear from more businesses about that, and if there seems to be a consensus, I would certainly be open to that,” he said in conclusion.
In response to a question about the “glaring problems” with QR codes for proof of vaccination, Kenney stated if you print the document, the QR code is still readable, so it’s not necessary to have a smartphone.
Any registration office will print off the proof of vaccination card free of charge as well, Kenney says.
There is currently no set of criteria for removing COVID-19 restrictions though the critical number to watch is the number of patients in ICU, he says.
“We need to get our ICU numbers below our baseline capacity which is 172,” said Kenney, adding that right now, the province is at about 285.
Baseline capacity refers to the number of beds that are staffed and funded intensive care beds across the province, he explained.
“The only way that we’ve created space to accommodate the excess COVID ICU patients… excess above our baseline number, is by postponing surgeries and other medical procedures,” Kenney said.
He went on to say that ICU numbers are possibly on track to be below 200 by mid-November.
Kenney also fielded questions about supply chain issues, increasing rural broadband access and rural crime.
He responded that supply issues are a “global problem,” that isn’t unique to Canada or Alberta.
“I just can’t think of anything the Government of Alberta can do. We are not the source of the problem, we are kind of one of the victims of it,” he said.
Kenney says the goal is to get 98 per cent of Alberta households within the CRTC’s definition of acceptable Internet speed within the next two or three years.
“This is an ambitious program,” said Kenney.
Kenney says generally, there seems to have been a downward trend in rural crime across rural Alberta in the past year.
Peace officers have been doing work that frees up police officers and the ALERT team has been coordinating and communicating better with other law enforcement.
He added that criminal law reform needs to come from the Parliament of Canada.
“We need to bring back, I believe, minimal custodial sentences,” said Kenney.
Because of a backlog of court cases when the UCP came into power two years ago, the prosecution began “triaging” a lot of property crime cases, says Kenney, or in other words, dropping charges against offenders.
Planning for the Passport to Christmas program is underway.
Those interested in serving on the chamber’s board are asked to contact executive manager Heather Bendera.
The chamber has two new members: The Peppered Elk and Nutrition by Michelle.
The chamber is still participating in the rapid testing program.
Bendera wished everyone a happy small business week.