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Face masks continue to be ‘strongly recommended,’ not mandatory in Edmonton

COVID-19: Edmonton debating whether masks should be mandatory
WATCH ABOVE: Should it be mandatory to wear non-medical face masks in public during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic? That's the question Edmonton city council is asking on Thursday. Vinesh Pratap reports.

Edmonton will not make face coverings or masks mandatory in public spaces where physical distancing cannot be maintained, for now.

The debate around making masks mandatory, particularly on public transit, has been a hot topic as cases of COVID-19 have increased in Edmonton in recent weeks.

Read more: Edmonton COVID-19 trend shows jump in active cases, more young people testing positive

Earlier this week, Toronto city council voted to make wearing face masks mandatory in indoor, “openly accessible” public settings. The move was based on the recommendation of the city’s medical officer of health, on a temporary basis in response to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

The bylaw is set to take effect on July 7. Wearing masks will be required for Toronto Transit Commission riders as of Thursday. The measure could be in place until the end of September when council could then vote on a possible extension.

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Read more: Toronto council votes to make wearing face masks mandatory in closed public settings

During Thursday’s emergency advisory committee meeting, interim city manager Adam Laughlin said the city is taking its direction on masks from Alberta Health, which at this time is strongly recommending face masks be worn in public spaces where two metres of physical distancing cannot be maintained, not making them mandatory.

“It’s strongly recommended,” he maintained.

LISTEN BELOW: Edmonton interim city manager Adam Laughlin joins The Ryan Jespersen Show

Mayor Don Iveson also noted Edmonton is a bit different from Toronto.

“Their health authority falls within the City of Toronto as municipal jurisdiction. For us, the direction would come primarily from Alberta Health and they have not yet mandated masks,” Iveson said. “We continue to very strongly recommend and encourage Edmontonians to wear masks in public spaces where physical distancing is not possible, including on public transit.

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“We’re not in a position to mandate it.”

Read more: Should masks be mandatory? It depends

Laughlin noted it is also a difficult debate, given some people may not be able to wear a face covering.

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“It’s easy to say mandatory but there are a number of people with medical conditions, age or disability who are not able to don a mask,” Laughlin said, questioning whether those people would be denied a rider on transit, for example.

He also noted the challenges when it comes to enforcement, particularly on public transit where it would likely fall on the operators to question those not wearing masks.

“You can make it mandatory but if you’re not going to enforce, is it really mandatory?” Laughlin said.

“Real and effective enforcement of a mask order would be a challenge for the City of Edmonton,” Iveson added. “First of all, we’d have to either create bylaws, which there just isn’t an appetite to do because enforcement of this law would be difficult and it might even be discriminatory to those who cannot wear masks for whatever reason.”

Several councillors said they have heard from residents on both sides of the debate. Councillor Andrew Knack pointed to hearing from residents who are particularly hesitant to take transit because masks aren’t mandatory. Knack suggested the city survey customers to get their opinion.

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Laughlin said the city is currently conducting surveys with Insight Community.

“If we get some feedback that sort of creates an openness to returning to transit on the basis of masks being mandatory, that’s something we will evaluated. We will continue to do it, though, in alignment with the provincial health authority to ensure that we’re not taking a step that impacts any decisions that they will be making,” Laughlin said following the meeting.

Laughlin also noted the city is still handing out masks at several city transit centres, where messaging is being relayed to strongly encourage people to wear the masks.

Read more: Planes, salons and grocery stores: Companies that require face masks in Canada

Dr. Chris Sikora, medical officer of health in the Edmonton Zone, joined Thursday’s committee meeting remotely and said Edmonton has consistently seen a daily increase of between 10 and 30 new cases of COVID-19 over the past few weeks. As of Thursday afternoon, there were 206 active cases of COVID-19 in Edmonton.

Sikora noted that contact and transmission tracing is thorough, and thus far, transit has not been identified as a “significantly higher-risk environment” in terms of where people are contracting the virus.

He reiterated that the messaging to Edmontonians is that masks are strongly recommended in public spaces, but not mandatory at this time. He said the conversation continues and could change depending how the virus transmission changes in the coming days, weeks and months.

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On Tuesday, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health noted that municipalities do have the option to make masks mandatory if they choose to do so.

“Municipalities have the ability to look at their own local epidemiology, their local circumstance and if they feel that a particular measure is appropriate in that particular context, then municipalities have the opportunity to go forward and put that in place,” Dr. Deena Hinshaw said.

Answering your COVID-19 questions, July 2
Answering your COVID-19 questions, July 2

Dr. Craig Jenne, an assistant professor in microbiology, immunology and infectious diseases at the University of Calgary, also acknowledged that mandating masks is a difficult situation.

“When things are mandated, that has to go hand in hand with enforcement. And unless we have mechanisms to adequately enforce these — and/or appreciate exemptions to these — people may have a medical exemption… really, perhaps the best advice here is to reiterate that masks are recommended,” he said Thursday.

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“If you cannot stay away from people, it’s best to put on a mask to ensure the virus doesn’t spread.”

Sikora also stressed the importance of good hygiene, staying home when you’re sick, and maintaining physical distance from others as ways to mitigate the risk of contracting the novel coronavirus.

Thursday was the last meeting of the emergency advisory committee until August, due to council’s summer recess. Iveson noted the committee could be recalled very quickly if needed.