Red Deer city council gave initial approval to a mandatory mask-wearing bylaw Monday night to try to slow the spread of COVID-19.
With local viral cases climbing to 116 on Monday, and 20 more COVID-19-related deaths announced across the province in the past 24 hours, councillors said it’s time to take a leadership role and do what’s best for the community at this time — even though the bylaw won’t be popular with everyone.
At the end of an eight-hour meeting, councillors unanimously gave first and second reading to a bylaw for mandatory masking in all public indoor places where 15 or more people gather.
The bylaw will return for a possible third reading at next Monday’s council meeting.
If it gains final approval, it will have a sunset clause of March 1, 2021, at which time council will have to discuss whether to extend it.
Having withdrawn council’s usual time limits on speaking because of high community interest in this mandatory masking debate, most councillors delivered long rationales to explain their positions.
“The landscape has shifted and our local response also needs to shift,” said Mayor Tara Veer, who was among those on council who reversed opinion on masks.
Veer noted local cases grew more than 130 per cent since October and health experts are more strongly endorses the efficacy of masks to reduce viral spread.
Coun. Michael Dawe noted that science backs masking — not as a “silver-bullet solution” to stopping the pandemic, but as a way of reducing the amount of virus that’s being transmitted from person to person, thereby reducing the severity of some cases.
He and other councillors expressed the importance of doing whatever is possible to prevent another lockdown, which will cost the economy millions of dollars and many more business closures.
Councillors were also concerned about overloading the health system, since 82 per cent of intensive care beds set aside for Alberta’s COVID-19 cases are already full.
Nineteen other Alberta municipalities, including Calgary, Edmonton and Lethbridge have mandatory mask bylaws.
And 400 doctors were urging the City of Red Deer to also take some action by mandating masks in indoor public spaces.
But city manager Allan Seabrooke had recommended council impose a bylaw beyond the existing requirement to wear masks on transit buses.
He had championed a more multi-pronged approach, reasoning that the province and Alberta Health experts were not implementing these kind of rules, so it wasn’t up to municipalities.
But several councillors stated the province is shirking its responsibility. Coun. Buck Buchanan questioned why Premier Jason Kenney hasn’t mandated masks across Alberta, since he is already strongly “encouraging” their use.
Kenney has “abdicated” his duty, leaving municipal officials to take the lead, even though this is creating a patchwork of different rules across the province, said Buchanan.
The city has received hundreds of emails on both sides of the issue.
But Coun. Frank Wong noted many of the anti-masking emails seem to be form letters, as if part of a campaign, while dozens of people he meets, including doctors, nurses, teachers and business people, are urging council to make masks mandatory in all public spaces.
Being immuno-compromised, himself, Wong said he hasn’t seen his relations all year out of caution. He hopes mandatory masking will help bring down the number of COVID-19 cases in Alberta, giving vulnerable people hope they won’t have to spend the holidays alone.
Red Deer city council also unanimously agreed on four other less contentious resolutions.
The city will advocate to the provincial government that COVID-19-related restrictions be imposed regionally, or provincially, but not on a particular municipality.
This became an issue last week, when Red Deer was made into a “watch” community because of a rising number of viral cases and there were more stringent restrictions placed on public gathering sizes.
This meant that at least one wedding party had to relocate at the last minute from the city to the County of Red Deer, which was less than a kilometre away in order to be in compliance with the new rules.
Several councillors felt this creates a sense of inequity and division while doing nothing to bring down viral caseloads. Mayor Veer questioned why some rural municipalities had the same or more per capital cases of COVID than Red Deer and yet did not get hit with similar crowd size restrictions.
Another approved resolution involved advocating that the Alberta government communicate better with the city, and give it advanced warning, before announcing these kinds of changes.
Coun. Buck Buchanan suggested there should be a stronger word than “advocate” since he feels the province rarely listens to the municipality when it’s urged for important local issues, such as not changing ambulance dispatch. “We want to be a player in the game, not just be told, ‘This is the way it is, live with it.’”
But Veer responded there will always be a “power differential” that tips the scales towards the province — “that’s constitutional” — so advocating is all the municipality can do.
Council also asked the city manager for weekly reports on the local status of COVID-19 in the community and approved a new communications plan that espouses ongoing public engagement and ways of addressing “COVID-19 fatigue, including “community spirit challenges sand a kindness campaign”