After federal election forums in Innisfail and Red Deer were shut down because of mask rule breaking, Ponoka Chamber of Commerce took no chances.
Ponoka forum organizers decided to take their Tuesday forum virtual, following the cancellation, only 30 minutes in, of a forum at Red Deer Polytechnic last Thursday. A link will be set up on the chamber’s website to allow voters to tune into the forum for candidates in Red Deer-Lacombe riding.
Chamber executive manager Heather Bendera said the in-person forum would have been subject to Alberta Health regulations that say masks must be worn indoors at public gatherings.
“We were worried there would be people opposed to that,” said Bendera.
The chamber was already considering whether it should go ahead with a public gathering when the back-to-back cancellations in Innisfail and Red Deer occurred.
“When this happened in Innisfail and Red Deer it kind of solidified our decision to go virtual.”
Bendera said the chamber is apolitical and does not support one party over another. It did not want to be dragged into a masking controversy when its goal was simply to allow the public an opportunity to hear candidates’ positions on the issues.
“Our job is to stay as neutral as possible. And we figured the best way to stay as neutral as possible was to just go virtual and avoid any situations like that.”
Some have voiced disappointment that they cannot attend the forum in person. But others have made it clear they are not comfortable having to wear a mask to attend.
Whether anti-mask advocacy will spill over into upcoming municipal forums is anyone’s guess in these fractious times.
“We have our municipal forum coming up on Oct. 5, and we haven’t made a decision yet on how we’re going to do that.”
Ponoka’s chamber is not the only group keeping a close eye on upcoming forums to see if the mask issue rears its head again.
The Building Industry and Land Development Association (BILD) – Central Alberta, Red Deer Construction Association and Central Alberta Realtors Association are co-hosting a forum for all Red Deer municipal candidates that is planned as an in-person gathering at the Radisson Hotel Red Deer on Oct. 6.
BILD CEO Denie Olmstead said they will be watching to see if there are any problems at other forums — especially municipal — around the province over coming days before making a final decision on the forum’s format. All three groups plan to meet on Sept. 21 to discuss the lay of the land.