Airdrie City council is taking a wait-and-see approach before deciding whether or not to implement a mandatory mask-wearing bylaw to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Council met July 28 for a presentation from City clerk Sharon Pollyck and a discussion of the pros and cons for establishing a potential face-covering bylaw for public spaces in Airdrie. Following a lengthy discussion, council unanimously approved a motion directing staff to prepare such a bylaw to be implemented if the city’s active number of COVID-19 cases reaches “enhanced status.”
“This is an unprecedented time requiring unpresented decision making,” said Mayor Peter Brown, in a statement. "Thank you to our residents, businesses and everyone for sharing your passionate opinions and engaging with us on this important topic".
According to Alberta Health Services (AHS), enhanced status refers to when a region’s risk level requires additional public health measures to control the spread of COVID-19.
Airdrie is currently designated as "open status," Pollyck told council, with a current rate of 35.7 cases per 100,000 residents.
While Airdrie's case count is relatively low for a city of its size, the number of active cases has climbed in recent weeks. The city reported 25 active cases, as of July 27, but had as few as four active cases July 14.
If Airdrie reaches 35 active cases, the city would have a per-capita rate of 50 cases per 100,000 residents. At that point, the city would enter what AHS deems "watch status." The health authority has the discretion to elevate a region from watch status to enhanced.
In the days leading up to the July 28 meeting, the City of Airdrie received 380 submissions from the public about the issue of a mask bylaw. According to Pollyck, 209 people – 55 per cent of respondents – were in favour, while 171 were opposed.
“Those numbers of responses really demonstrate the passion for this topic in the community, as well as the divisive nature of the topic,” she said.
Key themes among those in favour of a mask bylaw, according to Pollyck, included looking out for vulnerable segments of the population, scientific evidence demonstrating the effectiveness of masks, the importance of avoiding a second economic shutdown and personal observations that social distancing protocols were not being followed in public spaces.
Those who were against a bylaw, Pollyck said, touted the importance of an individual’s right to choose, the difficulty in getting young children to wear a mask, scientific evidence that showed a lack of effectiveness for wearing masks, and the belief that they provide wearers a false sense of security.
Pollyck’s presentation also touched on what other municipalities were doing about mask bylaws, including Toronto, Calgary and Edmonton. She spoke about how Calgary City council recently passed a face-covering bylaw – effective Aug. 1 – that will apply to public facilities and transit, as well as indoor spaces.
Councillors’ discussion centered around what the parameters of a mask bylaw would look like – where it would apply, how the City would enforce it, where masks would be sourced from and what, if any, exceptions to the legislation should be included.
Multiple councillors expressed their displeasure that municipal governments are responsible for deciding whether or not to implement a mask bylaw, rather than the provincial government. While the Alberta government has recommended people wear a mask to help limit the spread of the virus, it has not indicated it will mandate the wearing of masks in public.
“This should not be a municipal decision, and it shouldn’t have been for Calgary, either,” Coun. Tina Petrow said. “I would much rather see this decision made at a regional level, because no matter what happens in Calgary, it’s going to have an impact on the surrounding municipalities.”
Coun. Candace Kolson agreed, adding she would be in favour of having a bylaw ready to go if the number of cases continues to rise in Airdrie.
“I have seen people choose not to socially distance when they’re able to,” she said.
“We’re getting to that point where leaving it up to the community isn’t working and we’re starting to see these numbers increase. But at the same time, I don’t agree this should be up to our municipality to mandate masks in public places.”
Coun. Kelly Hegg brought up other health-related concerns City council has discussed in the past, such as fighting to bring 24-hour urgent care to Airdrie, smoking bans and the Airdrie Blue Zones Project.
“It’s too bad we’re as polarized as we seem to be in terms of what we need to do,” he said. “As a teacher, I always spoke to kids about rights versus responsibilities. Some people feel it’s a right whether or not to wear a mask, and while that might be true, it comes down to the responsibility we have for our fellow citizens.
“Health is important to us as community leaders. We’re not experts in it, but we are listeners and we base our decisions on what people say.”
Following the discussion, Coun. Al Jones moved to direct City administration to draft options for a potential mask bylaw, which will be presented at the Aug. 17 council meeting.