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Alberta's Kenney suspends house as COVID cases soar: Opposition calls him a 'coward'

EDMONTON — Alberta Premier Jason Kenney's government is suspending the spring sitting of the legislature due to soaring, record-breaking caseloads of COVID-19.

EDMONTON — Alberta Premier Jason Kenney's government is suspending the spring sitting of the legislature due to soaring, record-breaking caseloads of COVID-19.

Opposition NDP Leader Rachel Notley said Kenney was abandoning his post, deserting Albertans, and allowing others to work at personal risk on the front lines while leaving unfinished critical legislative work, such as paid sick leave.

"He's a coward," Notley told reporters Sunday, just hours after Kenney's government announced the suspension in a statement.

"This premier has locked the people out of their own legislature at a time when they are likely looking more than ever to that very building, and the people running the government inside of it, for leadership."

Government House Leader Jason Nixon, in a news release, said the two-week stoppage is to prevent further spread of the novel coronavirus.

He said it is not due to any confirmed COVID cases among legislature members or staff.

"With COVID-19 continuing to spread across Alberta, the government has determined that having MLAs return to Edmonton from all over the province after constituency week is no longer prudent," said Nixon.

"Suspending proceedings is the right thing to do as case counts increase."

Notley stressed her caucus was told of the decision but did not agree with it.

She said the suspension has nothing to do with public safety but with Kenney avoiding accountability on the COVID crisis while contending with a fractured caucus that has seen almost half of his United Conservative backbench publicly criticize his public health rules as an unnecessary infringement of personal freedoms.

Notley said Albertans shouldn't have to care about Kenney's internal political squabbles. She also said shutting down the legislature so politicians can stay safe sends a cruel message to those who can't stay home, including restaurant patio servers, retail staff, and teachers and students in schools.

"He's not thinking about any of those Albertans today. He's thinking about himself and not having to come into work," said Notley.

"He's running away from responsibility and frankly running away from his caucus."

Kenney's cabinet will continue to meet virtually and legislature committees will also continue, with members participating remotely.

The tentative return date is May 17, and Nixon said the house can reconvene earlier if an emergency arises.

Notley was asked: What would constitute a bigger emergency than the current COVID crisis?

"Your guess is as good as mine," she replied.

"There are multiple logical inconsistencies in the rationale behind this -- and that's what happens when you use one explanation to cover something you are doing for entirely different reasons.

"It is about politics and it's about Jason Kenney's utter failure to lead through this time."

The decision comes as Alberta's hospital system braces for a storm surge of patients over the next few weeks, given daily COVID-19 case counts have topped the 1,000 mark for almost a month.

On Thursday, Friday and Saturday, Alberta has logged more than 2,000 infections a day.

The daily count decreased on Sunday, to 1,731 new diagnoses and three added deaths.

But hospitalizations rose to 648, with 155 COVID-19 patients in intensive care.

Hospitals in Edmonton and Calgary have begun scaling back non-urgent surgeries to handle the pandemic-related influx.

On Friday, Alberta's physicians were briefed on a triage protocol should the COVID situation ever reach that sobering point.

The 50-page document stresses the plan would be to focus resources on patients with "the greatest likelihood of overall survival" while considering the amount of resources needed for that survival and how long those resources would be needed.

It will be a group call, given the heavy moral burden such life and death decisions would have on individual physicians. Family members of the patient would have no say.

For the last 14 months, Kenney has toggled health restrictions on public gatherings and businesses, trying to save lives and keep people's livelihoods intact.

He was criticized for waiting too long to bring in new rules during the second wave at Christmas and is now facing similar critiques during the third.

Kenney dismissed bringing in new restrictions on Monday, saying people likely wouldn't follow them anyway, but by Thursday introduced new rules on so-called COVID-19 hot spots. He said the measures were critical to bending the curve.

Kenney dismissed criticism he was pursuing inconsistent, confusing policy, instead characterizing it as a nimble, flexible response.

Kenney's government has also been criticized for failing to enforce public health rules, particularly allowing packed congregations to meet for months at the GraceLife Church near Edmonton before shutting it down in early April.

Kenney has said his government has no say in how health rules are enforced.

Over this weekend, hundreds of people flocked to a maskless "No More Lockdowns" rodeo outside the central Alberta community of Bowden, in full defiance of the province's health regulations and with no on-the-ground pushback from authorities.

Kenney, in a series of posts on Twitter Sunday, scolded the rodeo goers.

"Not only are gatherings like this a threat to public health, they are a slap in the face to everybody who is observing the rules to keep themselves and their fellow Albertans safe," Kenney wrote.

"If we do not begin to bend the curve, our health care system could very well be overwhelmed in a matter of weeks."

Alberta currently doesn't allow indoor social gatherings and outdoor gatherings are limited to 10 people. Stores remain open at sharply reduced capacity and restaurants can keep their patios open.

On Thursday Kenney announced new rules for high-case zones – encompassing most of Alberta's urban areas -- shuttering gyms and sending home Grade 7-12 students who weren't already learning on-line.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 2, 2021.

Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version erroneously reported that the GraceLife Church closed in March. In fact, it closed in April.