Whether provinces are entering a new phase, taking cautious steps or adjusting to life under a new colour zone, deconfinement is happening at different rates and in different ways across Canada. In the same way that we quickly adapted to discussing the first, second, or third waves of the COVID pandemic, the ongoing lifting of public health measures is best described as a second reopening effort. At this time last year provinces were slowly coming out of the first, presumed to be the only, wave of the pandemic, and they were rapidly removing public health measures to kick start their economies.
Now that we’ve faced waves two and three, are provinces thinking differently about how and when to reopen? Does the steadily climbing pace of vaccination in Canada mean provinces are reopening more aggressively? And is the lifting of restrictions guided by the pace of vaccinations, the epidemiological situation, or a political/economic calculus?
Comparing provinces’ reopening plans isn’t without difficulty, because key factors – vaccination benchmarks, variant case growth and starting-point policy stringencies – are incredibly varied. But the comparison here can provide insight into the current state of the pandemic and the asymmetric return to normal underway across Canada.
Since March 2020, the Centre of Excellence on the Canadian Federation at the Institute for Research on Public Policy has been tracking provincial public health measures, with the goal of standardizing highly divergent policy approaches into a single, comparable Stringency Index. You can read past analyses based on the Stringency Index here and here. These data can help shed light on reopening efforts, compare provinces with one another, and compare the state of reopening in 2020 and now, in 2021.
Comparison between the 2020 and 2021 reopenings
The context for this second reopening is very different from the context a year ago. At least 50 per cent of the populations of all provinces have now received one dose of the vaccine, and second-dose vaccinations are steadily climbing. Vaccination progress should incite provinces to move faster to reopen their economies. At the same time, highly transmissible coronavirus variants were not a threat in the summer of 2020, and may justify greater caution when ramping down restrictions, even with vaccination going well. As figure 1 shows, the presence of COVID variants in 2021 is a clear difference between the reopenings, with case numbers currently higher than last year.
It is perhaps not surprising that although the 2021 reopening is very much underway, provinces are proceeding with caution. For most of the country, after a long winter spent living under strict confinement, the lifting of measures now may feel less restrictive than it did in 2020, but the Canadian stringency average in late spring 2021 up until July was higher than it was at the same time a year ago (figure 2).
However, considering only the Canadian stringency average runs the risk of eclipsing important provincial differences. Throughout the pandemic, provinces have introduced public health measures that suit local epidemiological and political contexts. This pattern of high divergence continues to define the pace and nature of the 2021 reopening. The stringency average is now lower than a year ago, in large part because of the rapid ramp down of restrictions in the two westernmost provinces, Alberta and British Columbia.
If we look at figure 3, patterns begin to emerge. In 2021 Alberta and B.C. initially proceeded more slowly than they did last year, until many measures were lifted on July 1. This sudden drop-off in stringency is contrasted with the more gradual processes unfolding in Manitoba, Quebec, and Newfoundland and Labrador.
Quebec’s reopening in 2021 is a continuation of the highly cautious approach it has taken throughout the pandemic, particularly in the third wave. Since the first wave, when it was hit harder than any other province, Quebec has systematically introduced measures that were more stringent than the Canadian average. In contrast, Alberta has often been one of the lowest-stringency provinces, even when faced with higher per capita cases (figure 4).
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To get a better sense of the factors that might be driving how provinces approach these changes — or absence of — we can compare Alberta (very low stringency), Quebec (average stringency), and Manitoba (high stringency), and look at patterns in case numbers and vaccination rates (figure 5).
Quebec is ramping down restrictive measures gradually, in sync with the decrease in cases and the increase in vaccinations. Manitoba is still facing higher numbers of cases, and in response lags behind other provinces in lifting restrictions. Alberta stands out for having lifted all restrictions, even though its vaccination rates is much lower than Quebec’s and its case numbers almost the same.
Masks as a measure of political calculus
Mask mandates have been a source of significant political pressure. Lifting this requirement is a highly symbolic step toward post-pandemic life. The conundrum here is that masks are arguably the one policy measure that least affects the reopening of the economy: provinces could be fully open, with retail outlets, bars and restaurants operating at full capacity, while still requiring masks in closed public spaces. In other words, lifting mask mandates is clearly a political move, with provinces taking very different approaches.
Provinces have tied removing mask mandates to vaccination rates but the threshold at which they have decided to lift these mandates vary greatly. British Columbia, Saskatchewan, and Alberta*, for instance, have indicated that masks will not be mandatory two weeks after 70 per cent of their eligible population has received one dose of the vaccine, a threshold that Alberta and B.C. have already met. In contrast, Quebec, as one of the most stringent provinces, will remove its mask mandate in late August if 75 per cent of people 12 years old and up have had two doses.
Limitations of the index
While we can model a snapshot in time, it is important to note that our Stringency Index does not capture some policy interventions that buffer the impact of reopening measures. For example, while we do capture Alberta’s decision to lift all pandemic restrictions on July 1, including the mask mandate, we do not capture that Calgary has maintained a public masking bylaw in city facilities and on public transit. Similarly, both BC and Quebec will appear less stringent because nightclubs and bars have reopened, but in both provinces dancing and mixing between tables is not permitted, and in Quebec alcohol service ends at midnight.
Although the ramp-down of restrictions generally aligns with increasing vaccination rates and decreasing case numbers, political and economic pressures are also linked to the lifting of restrictions, in some provinces more than in others. At the very least, some provinces have clearly baked greater caution into their reopening plans in the face of new variants.
Up until now, community spread has largely driven case growth. As there are more international flights and the Canada-US border is set to reopen, it remains to be seen if low stringency levels will continue to align with low case growth. In the face of the highly transmissible Delta variant, provinces have bet big on high vaccination uptake. But with the vaccination rate required for herd immunity estimated to be as high as 90 percent – a coverage rate we are unlikely to see – the fate of this bet is far from clear. What we do know is that preventing outbreaks along the path to our new normal will depend largely on successful vaccine drives, and with 8 in 10 Canadians indicating they would be willing to get vaccinated, the pandemic may soon be in the rear view.
Note to readers: A previous version of this article stated that Alberta stood out for not setting a vaccination threshold for lifting its mask mandate. It did set a threshold (70 per cent of population 12 years old and up) and reached it on July 1.