Recent federal and provincial COVID-related updates: what you need to know
By Robyn Finley and Yang Guo (Student-at-Law)
Public health measures
Unlike its neighbouring provinces, Alberta has not extended the public health state of emergency currently in place and the public health order expired on June 15, 2020. The province is no longer under a state of emergency. However, public health measures continue to be in place, including symptom screening, temperature checks and mandatory isolation plans for international travelers at land borders and airports. Advice to continue with careful handwashing, disinfecting and physical distancing, or the use of masks where physical distancing is not possible, remains. As of June 3, drop-in COVID-19 testing is available to residents of Calgary and Edmonton, whether or not they have symptoms. Outside of these cities, any asymptomatic Albertan has been able to be tested by appointment, as of May 29.
The province has made masks available to all Albertans at A&W, McDonald's, and Tim Horton's drive-thrus at 600 locations across the province. The cities of Edmonton and Calgary have also been supplied with 500,000 masks each and will be responsible for distributing them mainly through their transit operations. Plans to distribute another 20 million masks are in development.
Temporary amendments to nursing homes regulations, which were previously introduced as part of the Alberta government's response to COVID-19, will become permanent, effective August 15. The permanent amendments to the regulations will remove barriers so that nurse practitioners can act as primary care providers in nursing homes, admitting and assessing residents, as well as offering follow-up care. Nurse practitioners and other health professionals will also be able to prescribe medication and order treatments in nursing homes, according to their scopes of practice.
On June 8, the Health Minister announced that the billing framework introduced during the pandemic so that Albertans can consult with physicians remotely will become permanent.
On May 14, most of Alberta entered Stage 1 of the Province's relaunch plan, after the pandemic forced the closure of most businesses and services in March. Calgary and Brooks fully entered Stage 1 on June 1.
On May 19, the outdoor gatherings limit increased from 15 to 50. In Stage 1, the following businesses and services were allowed to reopen:
- retail businesses;
- farmers' market vendors;
- hairstyling and barber shops;
- restaurants, bars, lounges and cafes at 50% capacity;
- some scheduled, non-urgent surgeries to resume gradually;
- museums and art galleries;
- daycares and out-of-school care, with occupancy limits;
- day camps, including summer school, with occupancy limits;
- places of worship and funeral services, following sector-specific guidance; and
- dog parks and playgrounds.
On June 9, Premier Jason Kenney announced that Alberta will enter Stage 2 of the relaunch plan on June 12, with the announcement coming one week earlier than expected. Stage 2 permitted many organizations and service providers to resume business, some of which were not anticipated to be allowed to reopen until Stage 3. Stage 2 increased the maximum number attendees for indoor gatherings from 15 to 50 people, and outdoor gatherings of up to 100 people will also be permitted. Both indoor and outdoor gatherings are subject to physical distancing requirements.
Restaurants, bars, lounges and cafes are allowed to operate at full capacity, subject to a limit of no more than six people to a table and physical distancing requirements. Furthermore, capacity restrictions have also been lifted for provincial campgrounds, worship gatherings, bingo halls and casinos (with the exception of table games, which remain prohibited)—there is no capacity limits in these venues, as long as physical distancing can be observed.
The following services were permitted to resume in Stage 2:
- public libraries;
- theatres and cinemas;
- wellness services such as massage, acupuncture and reflexology;
- personal services, including esthetics, cosmetic skin and body treatments, manicures, pedicures, waxing, facial treatments, and artificial tanning;
- community halls;
- additional elective surgeries; and
- kindergarten to grade 12 schools for requested diploma exams and summer school, following specific government guidance.
Stage 2 also permits individuals to come in close contact (less than two metres) with up to 14 other people in "household cohorts". Performing arts organizations are allowed to form cohorts of up to 50 cast members, and sports teams can run regional "mini-leagues", consisting of a group of up to 50 players. Instrumental concerts and performances may occur with up to 50 performers, subject to indoor size restrictions on gathering at indoor and outdoor venues. Individuals may belong to a household cohort as well as a sports or performing cohort.
Certain measures planned for Stage 3 have also been incorporated into Stage 2, allowing the following activities to resume:
- indoor recreation, fitness and sports, including gyms and arenas
- leisure swimming at indoor pools
All businesses that have reopened and services that have resumed must ensure that they meet the Provincial Government's guidance for workplaces.
The timing of Stage 3 is dependent on the success of Stage 2, and is set to include the opening of all remaining services and businesses, with certain restrictions still in place.
Oil and natural gas industry's monitoring and reporting obligations
In addition to changes to reporting requirements announced earlier in 2020, and as described in our previous bulletin dated April 15, on May 20, the Alberta Energy Regulator (the AER) released its Decision 20200520A and Decision 20200520B (the Decisions). The Decisions came in response to concerns raised by operators in Alberta's oil and natural gas industry about complying with COVID-19 Orders and Guidelines while performing the monitoring requirements set out in the approvals for their respective activities. The Decisions temporarily suspended monitoring requirements and certain activities incidental to monitoring, with the stated intent to "balance the need for monitoring of environmental conditions with the need to ensure public safety and safety of essential workers" during the COVID-19 public health emergency.
On June 8, the Mikisew Cree First Nation, the Fort McKay First Nation and the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation filed a Regulatory Appeal Request to appeal the Decisions, on the basis that the Decisions were not made with adequate consultation, and that the Decisions do not leave adequate reporting and monitoring obligations in place.
On June 9, a number of environmental and Indigenous groups, including leaders from the Northwest Territories wrote to the federal Environment Minister, requesting that Federal Government intervene to overturn the Decisions. The same day, the AER released a public statement which addressed the Decisions and stated that the AER will review updated public health information and assess how to adjust the suspensions effected by the Decisions in light of the Province's move to Stage 2. The public statement also indicated that the suspended obligations in the Decisions represent between two to five per cent of Alberta's oil and natural gas industry's overall reporting obligations. The Decisions say that the suspensions will remain in effect until otherwise directed by the AER, but the AER has since indicated that the Decisions will lapse 60 days after the state of public health emergency ends, or August 15 whichever is sooner.
Relaunch of government services
As of May 27, Alberta MLAs have returned to the legislature. On June 5, the Alberta Court of Queen's Bench resumed remote Criminal Appearance Court province-wide via the Webex video program. Beginning in June and continuing through July and August, the Court will also be hearing some short, judge-alone criminal trials, both in COVID-safe courtrooms and via Webex.
Access to courthouses in Alberta continues to be restricted only to necessary persons, including counsel, litigants, accused, witnesses, support workers, and members of the media. Pursuant to Master Orders #3 and #4, the Court of Queen’s Bench will continue to limit its hearings to emergency and urgent matters only until June 26, 2020, and criminal jury trials and jury selection will be adjourned to September 8, 2020.
Resuming the 2020-21 school year
School authorities in Alberta are planning for three possible scenarios for September 2020:
- In-school classes resume (near normal operations with health measures)
- In-school classes partially resume with additional health measures
- At home learning continues (in-school classes are cancelled)
Schools will likely resume in-person classes in September, but scenarios may differ across the province and local school boards are expected to develop their own COVID-19 plans under the relevant public heath guidelines. The Provincial Government will share its final decision on August 1.
Provincial assistance programs
On June 5, the Alberta government announced that it will commit up to $200 million to eligible businesses and non-profits with less than 500 employees, who will be able to access up to $5,000 each to offset a portion of their relaunch costs. These funds can be used for implementing measures to minimize the risk of virus transmission (such as physical barriers, personal protective equipment and disinfecting supplies), rent, employee wages or replacement of inventory. Program details and application materials are forthcoming.
The Provincial Government is also planning to introduce further measures, including legislation, to ensure that commercial tenants will not experience rent increases or evictions. Additional details will be finalized soon.
The Alberta Biz Connect tool provides a template to help businesses and locations that are reopening create a plan to protect employees and patrons from the spread of infection. Completion of this template is voluntary.
On June 16, the federal government extended the Canada-US border closure for an additional 30 days. The two countries had originally reached an agreement in March to temporarily close the border to non-essential travel. These restrictions were set to expire on Sunday, June 21, but will now extend to July 21.
As of June 9, foreign nationals who are immediate family members of Canadian citizens and permanent residents, and who:
- do not have COVID-19 or exhibit any signs or symptoms of COVID-19, or
- do not have reason to believe they have COVID-19
may enter Canada if they are entering to be with an immediate family member for at least 15 days. Those admitted into Canada pursuant to this exemption must self-isolate for 14 days. The Canadian Border Services Agency has defined "immediate family members" to include an individual's:
- spouse or common-law partner
- dependent child
- parent or step-parent or the parent or step-parent of the person's spouse or common-law partner; or
- guardian or tutor.
This change does not apply to immediate family members of temporary residents in Canada, such as those on a student or work visa.
Tourism industry support
On May 31, the federal agency Western Economic Diversification Canada pledged $3.45 million to bolster recovery efforts for western Canada's tourism sector. Funds will support regionally-based tourism associations that provide services to small and medium sized enterprises. $1,450,000 of this funding is allocated to Travel Alberta, through the Government of Alberta.
As of May 25, applications are being accepted for the Canada Emergency Commercial Rent Assistance (CECRA) program, administered by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation. The CECRA will provide relief for qualifying small businesses who are experiencing financial hardship. Unsecured, forgivable loans will be available to successful commercial property owner applicants to allow such commercial property owners to:
- reduce the rent owed by their impacted small business tenants; and
- meet operating expenses on commercial properties.
Property owners who receive support from CECRA must offer at least a 75% rent reduction for the months of April, May and June 2020. CECRA will cover 50% of the rent, with the tenant paying up to 25% and the property owner forgiving at least 25%. Applications were initially staggered, but are now open to all property owners across Canada.
Businesses in national parks were previously ineligible for CECRA because they or their landlord are renting on federal lands or from a federal agency. On June 1, the Federal Government announced that 700 businesses located in national parks may now be eligible for relief from the Government of Canada, under similar eligibility conditions to those of the CECRA program. The Government of Canada will waive up to 75% of eligible commercial rents for April, May and June 2020. The relief is in addition to measures announced on March 27, allowing commercial operators to defer payments normally due on or after April 2, 2020 to as late as September 1, 2020. Parks Canada will contact all holders of commercial leases and licenses of occupation in national parks, national historic sites and national marine conservation areas to provide details on the additional relief.
On June 11, parliament introduced Bill C-17, An Act Respecting Additional COVID-19 Measures. The bill would enact the new Time Limits and Other Periods Act (COVID-19), which would in turn:
- suspend, for a maximum of six months, certain time limits in relation to proceedings before courts;
- temporarily enable ministers to suspend or extend time limits in specified acts and regulations for a maximum of six months, but not beyond December 31, 2020; and
- provide for Parliamentary oversight over the exercise of these powers.
Under this proposed legislation, ministers would be able to exercise their powers, until September 30, to suspend or extend time limits under specific provisions of several acts, including the Canada Business Corporations Act, the Bankruptcy and Insolvency Act, the Companies' Creditors Arrangement Act, the Investment Canada Act, etc.
Bill C-17 would also amend the Canada Emergency Response Benefit Act (CERBA) to enhance its administration and enforcement by allowing a review of decisions made under the CERBA. The proposed changes would make a worker ineligible for an income support payment if they do not return to work when it is reasonable to do so, or decline a reasonable job offer.
Extension to Canada Emergency Response Benefit
On June 16, Prime Minister Trudeau announced that the Canada Emergency Response Benefit program would be extended by eight weeks. Canadians who have lost their jobs or earn less than $1,000 a month due to COVID-19 will now be able to claim the benefit for a maximum of 24 weeks between March 15 and October 3.