CALGARY—Weeks after rocketing to some of the highest COVID-19 rates on the continent, Alberta has laid out an ambitious reopening plan that could see residents returning to some version of normal life before the end of June.

CALGARY—Weeks after rocketing to some of the highest COVID-19 rates on the continent, Alberta has laid out an ambitious reopening plan that could see residents returning to some version of normal life before the end of June.

“Today we are truly near the end of this thing,” Premier Jason Kenney told reporters Wednesday. “We’re finally getting back to normal, and I think it means the best Alberta summer ever. This is due, in large part, to the miracle of modern medicine — the COVID-19 vaccines.”

The plan has three phases, each successive step triggered by how many people in the province have received their first vaccination dose and how many people are hospitalized. The first restrictions the province will loosen will be capacity rules for religious gatherings, starting Friday — and, if all goes according to plan, Alberta could hit the final stage of its reopening as soon as late June or early July, Kenney said.

It’s a plan that puts Alberta on a path to reopen faster than other Canadian jurisdictions, even Ontario, despite the fact the Prairie province currently has a higher case rate.

Kenney is even backing the return of the Calgary Stampede, at a time when similar major events, including the Canadian National Exhibition, have been cancelled.

The announcement Wednesday was a rare moment of positivity for Kenney, who, in recent weeks, has struggled to contain one of the fastest growing outbreaks in North America while also dealing with growing pushback against public health rules, much of it coming from within his own United Conservative Party.

“Premier Kenney had a pretty big smile on his face,” notes Duane Bratt, a political science professor at Calgary’s Mount Royal University.

“In one sense, I think that optimism is warranted. The case numbers, the hospitalization numbers, the ICU numbers are all trending down, and the vaccination rates are going up,” he said.

“But this is a really aggressive time frame. It’s basically going from today to a full reopening in the span of five weeks.”

The province will reach the final stage of its reopening only after 70 per cent of eligible Albertans age 12 and up have received their first dose of vaccine — a strategy that puts the province roughly in line with neighbouring British Columbia, which has also set a 70 per cent target as a requirement for returning to many normal social gatherings by early July.

Both western provinces are set to reopen faster than Ontario, which, when it hits the 70 per cent threshold, will allow small indoor gatherings of five people.

But the Alberta promise to lift all restrictions, aside from some isolation requirements for confirmed cases and protection measures in continuing care homes, puts the province on a faster path.

Only a few weeks ago, the province was publicly struggling with what Kenney referred to as its “compliance problem” when it came to public health rules.

Since then, officials have imposed new restrictions and stepped up enforcement — several religious leaders and the organizers of an illicit rodeo are facing charges — and cases have dropped to the point that hospitals are no longer under the same threat, Kenney said. Three weeks ago, Alberta’s case rate was three times higher.

The province still has some of the highest rate of new cases in the country, at 101 per 100,000 people over the past week. That’s higher than Ontario — currently sitting at 80 cases per 100,000 — and second only to Manitoba, currently battling a new wave-driving 227 cases per 100,000 people.

With significant libertarian leanings and a clear urban-rural divide, Alberta has been perhaps more polarized on public health measures than anywhere else in the country, and the tightrope that Kenney has had to walk was still present Wednesday, Bratt said.

“He’s got people going, ‘Oh my God, this is too aggressive.’ And he’s got other people saying, ‘Why didn’t he do this a year ago?’ or ‘Look at when Texas did (to reopen early)’ and it just signifies the challenges that he’s got.”

It’s notable not only that Kenney announced a loosening of controversial restrictions, but that he’s aiming to do so in time for the province’s social event of the summer, Bratt added.

“Based on what he’s been saying in the past, what he said today and the actual time frame, I think this is being driven by one thing,” he says. “And that’s the Calgary Stampede.”

The century-old rodeo and festival — billed as “the Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth” — is slated to start July 9 this year, and Kenney said his government has worked with organizers to help make it happen, even in a reduced capacity, including pushing the federal government for more relaxed quarantine rules for rodeo competitors travelling from the United States.

A successful Stampede could help slow the political bleeding Kenney has seen, Bratt says. “It’s as big a symbol that you could have that things are back to normal.”

Notably, Albertans’ plans are tied to how many people have had their first dose of vaccine, despite concerns raised by some experts who say that people should be careful until they’ve had their second dose and can benefit from the added protection it gives.

At the federal level, Health Canada has recommended only lifting restrictions once 75 per cent of adults have their first dose and 20 per cent have their second.

“Obviously, we wish we we’d had broader second-dose coverage by now,” Kenney said.

“Our public health team, in coming up with this policy framework, very closely assessed it, but they weren’t just looking at first-dose protection,” he said.

They also considered “natural immunity,” he said, present among those who have had COVID. He said the province estimates about 14 per cent of Albertans have some natural immunity.

While having COVID-19 does seem to result in some lasting protection — Quebec, for example, is recommending just one dose for people who have been infected — experts say the level of immunity can vary greatly.

Starting on June 1, outdoor social gatherings can increase to as many as 10 people and outdoor patio dining can resume with a maximum of four people per table.

The next stage, which will begin two weeks after 60 per cent of eligible Albertans have one dose and hospitalizations are below 500 cases, will increase permitted outdoor social gatherings to 20 people, allow small weddings and permit indoor fitness with restrictions.

The third and final stage will be triggered when 70 per cent of Albertans have at least one dose.

When other provinces will fully reopen

Ontario — many indoor events and services will be permitted as long as social distancing remains once 70 to 80 per cent of people have one dose, and 25 per cent of people are fully vaccinated.

British Columbia — a four-part plan will see many activities possible by early July, once 70 per cent of the population has one dose, and normal activities resume by mid-September.

Saskatchewan — indoor activities movies, pools and concerts will be phased in stages throughout July. A full lifting of restrictions will come later.

Alex Boyd is a Calgary-based reporter for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @alex_n_boyd