With Alberta commencing Stage 2 of the "Opening Soon: Alberta's Relaunch Strategy" (the "Relaunch Strategy") today, a large and expanded group of Alberta businesses, service providers and consumers are now able to resume activities. The Alberta Government previously announced that the province of Alberta would launch Stage 2 of the Relaunch Strategy on June 12, 2020, including advancing several activities into this Stage that were originally planned for Stage 3 of the Relaunch Strategy.
With certain public health measures in place, the following businesses and services are now permitted to operate:
- Schools (K-12) for requested diploma exams and summer school;
- Additional scheduled, non-urgent surgeries;
- Wellness services such as massage, acupuncture and reflexology;
- Personal services (i.e. esthetics, cosmetic skin and body treatments, manicures, pedicures, waxing, facial treatment, artificial tanning);
- Indoor recreation, fitness and sports, including gyms and arenas;
- Movie theatres and theatres;
- Community halls;
- Organized team sports;
- Pools for leisure swimming;
- Video lottery terminal retailers in restaurants and bars;
- Casinos and bingo halls (table games are not permitted at this time); and
- Instrumental concerts.
Although the Alberta Government has announced that these businesses and services will be permitted to open on June 12, 2020, as with Stage 1, recommenced operations may be delayed by municipalities or at the discretion of business owners for various reasons, including: (i) to provide time to properly facilitate bringing employees back to work; (ii) to provide time for sufficient training on COVID-19 protocols; and (iii) to adapt business operations and work processes to ensure compliance with public health and safety guidelines, including procuring required personal protective equipment ("PPE").
The Alberta Government has published "COVID-19 Information: General Relaunch Guidance" (the "General Relaunch Guidance") to provide practical guidance to businesses and services that are re-opening to help reduce the spread of COVID-19. All businesses and services eligible to re-open under Stage 2 should review the General Relaunch Guidance, in addition to sector specific guidelines published by the Alberta Government as part of Stage 2 of the Relaunch Strategy, and prepare a COVID-19 relaunch plan and post this information for attendees. Businesses and services are required to implement measures to comply with public health requirements, which will be carefully monitored by public health officials for compliance with public health orders. Businesses that do not comply with public health orders may face fines or closure of their business. Some businesses that were allowed to re-open in Stage 1 were given warnings for failing to physically distance and in some cases, were issued a notice of closure by public health officials for failing to adhere to appropriate COVID-19 policies, including failing to properly physically distance and permitting employees to work when symptomatic. Businesses re-opening in Stage 2 should ensure that all public health guidelines are being followed by staff and patrons attending their business to prevent fines and closure by public health officials.
The capacity for events and gatherings will also be increased in Stage 2. The increased capacities are as follows:
- A maximum of 50 people can be in attendance for indoor social gatherings, including weddings, funeral receptions, and birthday parties;
- A maximum of 100 people can be in attendance for outdoor events and indoor seated/audience events, including wedding and funeral ceremonies;
- With appropriate public health measures and physical distancing in place, there is no longer a cap on the number of people for worship gatherings, restaurants, cafes, lounges, bars, and bingo halls; and
- The 50% capacity limit for provincial campgrounds is being lifted.
In addition to the increased capacity for restaurants, cafes, pubs and bars, certain bar activities will now also be permitted, such as billiards and darts. Please refer to the sector-specific guidance developed for restaurants, cafes, pubs and bars for information on risk mitigation with the new changes in Stage 2.
No timetable has been set for Stage 3 of the Relaunch Strategy. The target date for Stage 3 will be determined based on the following health indicators: active cases, health-care system capacity, hospitalization rates, intensive care unit cases, and infection rates.
Gowling WLG Focus
Outside of the increase in capacities for certain businesses, the implementation of Stage 2 of the Relaunch Strategy is not expected to impact businesses that have continued to operate as a result of either being deemed an essential services, were otherwise permitted to remain open, or were permitted to open in Stage 1 of the Relaunch Strategy. Such businesses should continue to conduct their operations as they have been to date under the parameters that are currently place, until further guidance is provided, ensuring compliance with the health and safety guidelines developed by the Alberta Government.
In response to some of the challenges businesses expressed facing in Stage 1 of the Relaunch Strategy, the Alberta Government launched Biz Connect to provide specific guidance in terms of risk mitigation techniques. Despite the guidance provided by the Alberta Government, ultimately individual businesses remain responsible for ensuring that they implement and adhere to appropriate measures in compliance with occupational health and safety obligations to ensure the health and safety of workers and individuals in the workplace. As with businesses that opened in Stage 1, businesses opening or expanding their capacity will continue to face the challenges of balancing obligations of health and safety requirements, privacy and employment law considerations, economic realities and ensuring adherence with evolving government and regulatory guidance, as previously discussed in our article outlining Stage 1 of the Relaunch Strategy, there are certain measures employers should be considering as they implement their own business relaunch.
The upcoming months will remain a period of transition in Alberta as businesses adapt their workplaces and policies in adherence to public health guidelines and enhance safety measures to assure their employees and their customers that their place of business is safe. As businesses prepare to re-open, they should consult public health guidance and put reasonable measures in place to protect employees and customers as businesses prepare to re-open. Depending on the nature of your business such measures may include: (i) using Health Canada approved hard surface disinfectants and hand sanitizers for use against COVID-19; (ii) conducting a hazard assessment to identify existing and potential hazards related to COVID-19; (iii) aiding physical separation through barriers (plexiglass), signage, floor markings and traffic flow controls to limit people in a space; and (iv) using PPE and following the prescribed guidance on the proper use of such PPE.
Many of these businesses will continue to face economic challenges related to revenue uncertainties while dealing with the increased cost of doing business associated with implementing additional public health measures, such as procurement and use of PPE. As Alberta businesses continue to adapt to the "new normal" in Stage 2 of the Relaunch Strategy, businesses may, subject to meeting the relevant qualifications, still be able to take advantage of certain federal government support programs that remain open for assistance such as the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidiary (CEWS) and the Work Sharing Program, to alleviate some of the burdens of the uncertain economic conditions. For additional information on these programs please consult our previously published articles that discuss CEWS and the Work Sharing Program in more detail.
Other programs continue to remain available to assist businesses and employers even as they re-open their doors, including programs such as: (i) Alberta's WCB deferral program; (ii) deferrals of loans from banking institutions and credit unions; and (iii) government supported sector specific deferrals of fees and levies. The Alberta government has also announced a commitment of up to $200 million for eligible small-and-medium-sized businesses and not-for-profit entities with less than 500 employees that were forced to close or were significantly impacted by COVID-19 to access up to $5,000 to offset relaunch costs to such organizations. It is expected that an online application for this program will become available in the coming weeks. The Alberta Government has also announced it is planning further measures to ensure commercial tenants will not face rent increases or be evicted for non-payment of rent due to the COVID-19. Additional details are expected to be finalized during the current summer session. It is anticipated this program will be available to landlords whose business tenants have lost 70% or more of their revenue and pay less than $50,000 a month in rent.
Additionally, businesses with operations in multiple provinces may face additional challenges as they navigate the variances in occupational health and safety and return to work requirements between jurisdictions. Business owners should be mindful of such differences and ensure that operations and return to work practices are structured in accordance with the applicable requirements of each local jurisdiction.
We will continue to provide regular updates with respect to the Relaunch Strategy as additional information becomes available.
We invite you to contact a member of Gowling WLG's Alberta Essential Services Team, Zafar B. Jaffer and/or Krista Schofer, if you have questions regarding the Relaunch Strategy.