RIP to the REP: What Alberta’s Removal of COVID-19 Restrictions Means for Employers

The Alberta government recently announced significant changes to the COVID-19-related public health measures in the province.

As of February 9, Alberta entered step one of its three-step plan to phase out COVID-19-related public health measures and removed the province’s Restrictions Exemption Program. As a result, restaurants and other businesses that were required to screen patrons for proof of COVID-19 vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test are no longer required to do so.

By March 1, the province anticipates entering step two of the plan, as long as hospitalization rates trend downwards. Step two includes removing all limits relating to indoor and outdoor social gatherings, capacity limits on all large venues, mandatory work-from-home requirements and indoor masking requirements.

Step three will involve removing COVID-19-specific continuing care measures and mandatory isolation requirements. The date for step three will be determined based on hospitalization rates.

More information on the province’s plan for the removal of COVID-19-related public health measures can be found on the Government of Alberta website.

What does this mean for employers?

Many employers are wondering how the removal of Alberta’s Restrictions Exemption Program and other COVID-19-related public health measures affects their workplaces. When reviewing the changes to the province’s COVID-19 measures, employers should keep in mind the following:

  • The Restrictions Exemption Program applied to patrons of affected businesses, not employees. The Alberta government never explicitly required employers to confirm their employees’ COVID-19 vaccination status, nor did it prohibit employers from doing so.
  • Employers with COVID-19 vaccination policies generally rely on their obligation to maintain a safe and healthy workplace under Alberta’s occupational health and safety (“OHS”) laws to implement such policies. Regardless of the province’s plan, employers should continually evaluate COVID-19 related hazards in their workplace, prepare updated hazard assessments and document how their COVID-19 vaccination policy eliminates or controls current and ongoing COVID-19 hazards in their specific work environment.
  • In some circumstances, the OHS-related justification for COVID-19 vaccination policies may change in light of messaging from public health officials that COVID-19 vaccination is less effective in reducing transmission of the Omicron variant. On the other hand, to the extent that COVID-19 vaccination reduces severe health outcomes of COVID-19 infections, that may assist employers in justifying their policies from a business continuity, sick leave and scheduling perspective. It also remains to be seen what risks future variants may present.
  • If employees require proof of vaccination for business-related travel (e.g., air travel, travel to jurisdictions with vaccination requirements), business meetings or access to client sites, then maintaining a COVID-19 vaccination policy may be warranted for such positions.
  • Most COVID-19 vaccination policies are clear that they are temporary in nature and may be amended or removed due to the evolving nature of the COVID-19 pandemic. Once a policy is removed, it may be more difficult to justify reimplementation later. There may be new variants of concern and other unpredictable factors associated with the COVID-19 pandemic in the future, so employers should exercise caution to ensure they are not prematurely removing a policy.

To the extent that the provincial government’s decision to remove certain COVID-19-related public health measures is based on the leading public health and scientific evidence at the time, employers should consider how this evidence affects their own COVID-19-related workplace policies and measures. Having said that, the specific circumstances in an employer’s own workplace will always be a key consideration for employers deciding how to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Our Labour and Employment team can provide guidance to employers on the implementation, modification and removal of COVID-19-related workplace policies and measures.

Note: This article is of a general nature only and is not exhaustive of all possible legal rights or remedies. In addition, laws may change over time and should be interpreted only in the context of particular circumstances such that these materials are not intended to be relied upon or taken as legal advice or opinion. Readers should consult a legal professional for specific advice in any particular situation.