Economy vs. health: Experts say COVID-19 has put Alberta in 'disproportionate' balance

WATCH ABOVE: Protecting the health-care system and getting businesses back open is a delicate act to balance. Many places around the world, including Alberta, have tried to get it right. But is it actually possible? Morgan Black looks into that.

As Alberta sits days away from the first stage of its 2021 staggered reopening plan, some experts are exploring whether it could be creating a societal divide.

Stage 1 of the plan launches on Feb. 8, and includes the return of gyms — but only for private training.

“There’s not a lot of people in a recession that can afford one-on-one training, and that’s about one percent of the population,” said Corey Peebles, who owns several locations of Anytime Fitness in Alberta.

“We’ve kind of isolated many of the people that need to be able to utilize it.”

Dean Curran, a sociology professor at the University of Calgary who focuses on inequality, said that generally, the restriction cycle that has come with COVID-19 has been especially hard on the less fortunate in the province.

“In in any market society, almost every single good is rationed based on cost,” Curran said. “Almost any good — wealthy people are able to afford more of it or (afford it) at all.

“When you limit being able to work out the gym to only one-on-one with a trainer that is going to significantly increase the cost,” he said. “There’s just no question about that. And that is going to reduce the number of people who can gain access to that service.”

He added that other restrictions, like travel-related ones, also mainly effect those in lower economic situations.

“The new rules around travel are basically going to mean that (for) those who are wealthy and have extra time, this will not be nearly as significant of an impediment as those who don’t have those resources right now.”

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Curran said that the COVID-19 pandemic has meant sweeping changes for many aspects of society — including mass layoffs and economic uncertainty. Of course, that is felt more strongly for those without a strong financial padding.

“Everything in society is distributed based on wealth. And we notice that when things change.”

On gyms, Curran clarified to Global News that “while restrictions often do fall hardest on the least advantaged, restraining the transmission of COVID is also fundamentally in the interest of the least advantaged as they tend to be disproportionately affected by its spread.”

For Peebles, despite the reopening plan specifying that gyms can only provide one-on-one private training, he plans to open his locations in Whitecourt, Red Deer and Drayton Valley to 15 per cent capacity — the same as retail are permitted to operate at.

“Gyms are safe, gyms are essential, and for the mental health of many people they are vital,” Peebles said.

He said at his locations, disinfectant fog machines, antibacterial wipes, and social distancing will be in place. For him, the loss for his business combined with the negative health effects he believes his members are feeling are enough for him to open.

“A $1,200 ticket doesn’t seem as intimidating when you’re losing $25,000 a week,” he said. “This second locked down financially cost more in five weeks than the last one did in three months. Some of these are rent subsidies aren’t coming through like they’re supposed to.”

Alberta Health says those businesses who violate public health orders may be subject to fines, prosecution of up to $100,000, or be ordered closed.

However, a rural church near Edmonton has continued to break public health rules, and although it was recently fined and ordered to close, it held in-person service with no masks or distancing this past weekend.

Chief medical health officer Dr. Deena Hinshaw says she helps set policy, but it’s up to Alberta Health Services and other law enforcement officials to take action.

“It’s critical that the enforcement of laws in the province is done in an independent way by those bodies who have the authority under legal frameworks to create orders or penalties,” Hinshaw told a virtual news conference Monday.

Curran said that he believes there is some anger in the province around “perceived fairness,” when it comes to the restrictions.

 “We have to factor in is just how hard it is being in quarantine, and how people feel like they have very little.”

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Economist Moshe Lander with Concordia University said that he believes many businesses are feeling desperate to make back lost revenue.

“(Businesses can) take advantage of the opportunity to reopen and use everything that you can to store up if we’re have to close down one more time,” Lander said.

“I think it’s always the matter of trying to find that that balance between trying to find the health of people and the health of the economy — and I don’t think we’ve hit on it yet.”

Lander added that the balance between restrictions and economy can be precarious. While New Zealand has been praised for its extreme approach, he doesn’t believe that could happen here in Canada.

“(New Zealand is) an island nation, that they can kind of totally close borders and pull up the drawbridge,” he said. “That’s a little harder for us to do.”

Variant spread adds another layer of concern

While some business owners are desperate to reopen, like Peebles, one Alberta epidemiologist says he believes the entire Stage 1 relaunch is too early.

“As soon as you’re opening up, I think it’s worrisome because you’re giving opportunity for the virus to spread,” said Roman Pabayo with the University of Alberta’s School of Public Health.

“One thing that really concerns me is the new variants. We do see what’s going on in England, the U.K., how it’s able to spread rapidly.  I’m just really concerned about lifting restrictions right now.”

The latest numbers of variant cases in Alberta were at 57 total cases, Dr. Deena Hinshaw said Tuesday.

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Pabayo said that he recommends that Albertans still try to limit their contact with others as Stage 1 progresses.

“The more opportunity for people to come in contact with each other, the (more) likelihood that it’s going to transmit,” he said.

In England, the country had to impose a new lockdown in early January as the U.K. variant caused what Prime Minister Boris Johnson called an “alarming” rate of spread.

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Lander said he feels concerned over what the economic fallout could be if that happens in Alberta.

“(Reopening) has short-term benefits, and then just goes back the other way,” he said.

For Pabayo, he said that while he understands the eagerness to reopen, it’s not ideal to do so amid the new variants being confirmed in the province.

“I understand the frustration with regards to businesses. But as soon as these things open up you’ll see the numbers shoot up again — I’m forecasting.”

Still, Peebles said he believes his members will be safe if they choose to visit his locations when they open on Feb. 8.

“I think sometimes we’re forgetting about the mental health impacts of having fitness centres close,” he said. “In the last 12 months, we’ve been closed for almost five months.”

–with a file from The Canadian Press

© 2021 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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