A small piece of fabric with elastic ear loops created a large outcry in Red Deer this fall.
Although most central Albertans are now following the rules and wear face coverings in indoor public places, some vocal anti-maskers are still holding weekly protest rallies in the downtown.
These people are angry that both the municipality and the province enacted mandatory masking policies.
Other Red Deerians are relieved about these masking laws and feel it took too long to get them.
Before city council passed the hotly debated municipal masking bylaw on Nov. 23 and the province superseded this with an Alberta-wide mandatory masking law on Dec. 8, many local retailers were trying to enforce their own masking policies.
Store clerks were left with the unenviable responsibility of trying to make customers comply with their company’s face-covering rules, as posted on the entry doors of private establishments around the city.
Debate about whether to enact a blanket masking bylaw in Red Deer began in early fall, when this city still had a low number of COVID-19 cases.
City administration had recommended against a masking bylaw at that time. But the mere mention of mandatory masks was enough to open a dam of public opinion, with people from both sides of the issue sending in hundreds of emails and letters.
City manager Allan Seabrooke called it one of the biggest unsolicited responses to the municipality in recent memory.
Communications to the city ranged from lucid arguments for civil liberties or the need to protect others, to abrasive and profanity-laden epistles.
Although Edmonton and Calgary already had their own municipal masking bylaws, Red Deer city councillors decided instead to wait for direction from the province’s chief medical officer, Dr. Deena Hinshaw. By the time viral cases in the city hit 65 in early November, Coun. Dianne Wyntjes was airing her concern, saying she can’t believe the matter of mandatory masking wasn’t on the following week’s council agenda.
Local cases of COVID-19 doubled by the time council gave initial approval to a masking bylaw on Nov. 16. A week later, when final approval was granted, there were 141 local cases.
“This is a vote for hope” that masks can help stem viral transmissions, said Coun. Michael Dawe. Less upliftingly, Dawe informed council during the same public meeting that he contacted police after an anti-masking advocate had threatened him by phone.
Many city councillors called for public unity before approving a mandatory mask bylaw that was soon superseded by the provincial masking law, announced on Dec. 8. It allows for some exceptions based on a person’s age, health conditions, and a few occupations.
Now that local viral cases have climbed past 400, will masks stop the virus in its tracks?
Detractors point out cases continue to climb in Edmonton and Calgary, despite the approval of their own municipal masking bylaws last summer.
Red Deer city councillors admitted masks “aren’t a silver bullet” against viral transmissions, or a magic shield.
But they are siding with medical experts, who now believe properly worn masks can slow the spread of COVID-19 and be one more tool in the pandemic-fighting arsenal.