There was no shiny DeLorean, no flux capacitor, no crazy professor, but a vacation in Alberta was like going back to the future nonetheless.
On July 1, Alberta lifted most of its COVID-19 restrictions, including ones banning indoor gatherings, and ended the province’s indoor mask mandate. Most cities, towns and counties followed suit by dropping their indoor mask-use bylaws.
Even the Calgary Stampede, with its mix of bucking broncs, gut-churning rides and pancake breakfasts, was back after a one-year pandemic hiatus.
For one province, it is a giant "Yee-haw." For the rest of Canada, including us who live two provinces away, Alberta’s reopening plan is either a political ploy targets Wild Rose Country’s freedom-loving stereotype or a risky medical experiment amid the growing threat of the COVID-19 Delta variant.
Entering this pandemic petri dish just days after the province’s reopening plan began offered a queasy combination of hope and trepidation.
No doubt, COVID-19 is still in the air in Alberta, both literally and figuratively. But so is the fascination of pre-pandemic moments once taken for granted, such as meeting a stranger at a charity golf tournament and striking up a conversation. For the past 18 months, this has been the stuff of a Fantasy Island episode in most of the world.
A pit stop in Medicine Hat, the first Alberta city on the Trans-Canada Highway while driving west, was a perfect example. It has become habit — and the law — for Manitobans to don a mask when going inside, even to pay for gas or buy a snack at a convenience store.
The man behind the gas-station counter wore a mask too, which was a relief, but most of his customers didn’t, and maskless folks proved to be a better sign that we’d entered Alberta than the one at the border.
Stopping at a restaurant in Strathmore, just east of Calgary, for a bite and to watch some of Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final between Montreal and Tampa Bay meant sharing space with a dozen unmasked Canadiens fans. It felt like going to a Winnipeg bar on a Jets night in 2018, when words such as "coronavirus" and "variants of concern" would have elicited blank stares.
There are no restrictions on the number of people who can be in stores under Alberta’s rules, so going to big-box store or a supermarket was unlike any recent Manitoba experience. Lengthy queues have become as much of the Costco experience in Winnipeg as its buying-in-bulk bargains. There were no lineups at the Costco in St. Albert but a sign recommending mask use upon entry encouraged about half of the customers to wear one.
Staff wore masks too, and Plexiglas panels remained to separate clerks from customers. The habit of keeping our distance that we’ve all picked up since last March will be a lasting remnant of the pandemic, if this shopping trip was any indication.
There were no confrontations between the masked and unmasked, though people were too busy filling shopping carts and clogging the aisles to get into a fight.
If vaccination rates keep up and the number of fully immunized residents rise, there will be a time when Manitoba will return to these pre-pandemic ways, too. People will have to make difficult decisions about how safe they want to be, because government regulations will ease and most will want to turn on the time machine and live like it’s 2019.
The trip to Alberta was the first in a couple of years to visit close relatives, and it was great to share a meal and discussions with family once again.
A sister-in-law, who, like so many of us, has health conditions that make her a COVID-19 high-risk case, continues wearing a mask when shopping, despite Alberta’s removal of its mandate.
She has grown frustrated with those who defy the rules, claiming the province’s pandemic laws are taking away their freedom.
She recounted a recent conversation with a neighbour, who celebrated the return of freedom Albertans have been granted, and wished she had immediately come up with the response that came to her later: "Why do you listen to the government now when they say you don’t have to wear masks when you didn’t listen to the government before when they told you to wear them?"
When Manitoba goes back in time and eases its pandemic rules, feel free to use her remark on the freedom fighters in your life.
Alan Small has been a journalist at the Free Press for more than 22 years in a variety of roles, the latest being a reporter in the Arts and Life section.