In an open field outside the prairie town of Bowden, Alberta, hundreds of people braved chilly winds and the threat of spring rain to attend their first rodeo in more than a year.
For the unmasked attendees cheering on as riders clung into bucking horses, the gathering this weekend must have seemed like a long-awaited return to normality.
But the province is currently battling the worst coronavirus outbreak in North America: this week, Alberta had an active case rate of 534 per 100,000 – more than double the country’s average, and one of the worst in the world.
And the illegal “No More Lockdowns Rodeo Rally” highlighted the challenges officials face in containing a brutal third wave in a province long averse to perceived governmental overreach.
On Wednesday, the province became the first in Canada to offer the Pfizer vaccine to residents aged over 12, beginning next week, a day after premier Jason Kenney announced online schooling, increased fines for lockdown violations, and the closure of some businesses in areas with high case rates.
“We will not permit our healthcare system to be overwhelmed. We must not and we will not force our doctors and nurses to decide who gets care and who doesn’t,” Kenney said during a televised address on Tuesday.
Police are reviewing the rodeo, but local reports suggest that no officers were dispatched to break up the event, and it is unclear if any organizers or attendees had received fines for breaking the province’s rules, which limit outdoor gatherings to 10 people.
“The reason we are at this critical stage of the pandemic in Alberta, with record high daily case counts and intensive care numbers, is precisely because, for whatever reason, too many Albertans are ignoring the rules we have in place,” Kenney told reporter on Monday, adding that it was “astounding” that more than a year into the pandemic, many in the province believe the virus is a hoax or government conspiracy.
One recent poll found that 75% of Albertans believed the premier was doing a bad job of handling the pandemic – but a portion of that displeasure came from groups who feel Kenney has gone too far.
Even though the conservative leader has been wary to implement aggressive restrictions seen in other provinces Kenney has faced insurrection from within his own party, with 16 lawmakers recently publishing a letter criticizing restrictions on retail and dining.
But an unwillingness to bring in strict measures has led to a “predictable and preventable” new surge in cases, said Joe Vipond, an emergency room doctor in Calgary.
“The science was clear from the beginning. If we didn’t aim for ‘Covid zero’ and if we started to relax our restrictions in the face of variants, this is where we would end up,” said Vipond. “It was always a fool’s errand to try and vaccinate our way out of a third wave. It’s just not mathematically possible.”
With the province’s ICUs filling up, officials have said they have prepared plans to ration care if the number of patients outstrips the hospital capacity.
“I don’t care how robust your systems are, I don’t care how great your training processes are. There is no system in the world that can out-expand the exponential growth of Covid,” said Vipond. “Are we in trouble? Absolutely.”
For more wary residents, frustrations over those who ignore scientific advice are part of daily life.
On the same day as the rodeo, Amanda, a nurse who lives in the Calgary, celebrated her son’s first birthday by waving to family gathered outside their window.
Days earlier, the nurse and her husband were told there were outbreaks in both her son’s daycare and her daughter’s class, dashing any hopes she could safely see family.
“My dad got really choked up. He’s a proud grandparent and not being able to hug his own grandkids is just so hard,” she said. “We have so many things to celebrate, new babies in the family and retirements, and we can’t we can’t do anything.”
On Tuesday, she and her family tested positive for the virus.
As a healthcare worker, she recognizes that a worsening situation could mean she’s redeployed to more dangerous work.
“Being in healthcare, I see the effects that people’s actions have on our patients,” she said. “I think people are frustrated, and doing whatever they want. And I don’t think things are gonna get better.”
Even with new restrictions in place, critics worry the measures might not be enough and aggressive case growth in the coming weeks is already baked in.
“For somebody who went into medicine with a view to protecting life and health of my fellow citizens, the hardest part about this is knowing that every single illness that we see now, every single death is a preventable one,” said Vipond.
“Unless something dramatically changes with the numbers, it’s hard to imagine how we get out of this without a healthcare disaster on our hands.”