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Calgary city council begins discussions on face mask policies amid COVID-19 pandemic

Mandatory face masks discussed by Calgary council members
Calgary city council members are discussing a bylaw that would make face masks mandatory on transit and possibly extend to some indoor spaces amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Matthew Conrod has details.

Calgary city council began discussions Monday on a bylaw that would mandate the use of face coverings on transit and possibly extend to some indoor spaces amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Calgary Emergency Management Agency (CEMA) chief Tom Sampson and Dr. Raj Bhardwaj, an advocate for face mask usage in the city, presented the proposal during a council meeting Monday afternoon.

The report, if passed, will mandate face coverings on all transit vehicles beginning in August, as well as develop a data-driven policy regarding face coverings in all indoor city-owned or operated properties.

Should the motion pass, a report will also be sent back to council in September with an outlined strategy for managing a second wave, including a face mask bylaw.

Read more: Could masks become mandatory in Calgary? Mayor isn’t ruling it out

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“We felt the first step to this process was engaging council and see if there is an opportunity to move forward,” Sampson said.

“With three of our local geographical areas now being over the 50 number (of COVID-19 cases) we think we’re well placed to at least start down this road with a bylaw.”

Sampson added he hopes to move forward with the policy as soon as possible. He said he’s hoping to hear back from council with a decision right away.

But Sampson may have to wait until tonight or even tomorrow for an answer.

Should masks be mandatory in Calgary? Thousands of Calgarians weigh in
Should masks be mandatory in Calgary? Thousands of Calgarians weigh in

Dr. Bhardwaj offered his own insight to council members on Monday, noting wider mask usage across the city has the potential to save lives.

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“If masks prevent outbreaks — which they have been shown to do — then absolutely they will save lives,” he said.

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He added that while he doesn’t believe a policy that mandates the use of masks at all times is necessary, he said more effort from Calgarians is needed to wear face coverings when possible.

“We don’t need everyone to be wearing a mask,” he said. “We need the majority of people to be wearing a mask majority of the time and we need that mask to be mostly effective.

“Right now we’re sitting at 34 per cent of people wearing a mask in Calgary and that’s simply not enough. The lower number of people you have wearing a mask, the lower the effectiveness.”

Read more: Coronavirus: University of Alberta study finds growing public support for face masks

Mayor Naheed Nenshi, who is also advocating for mask use in the city, said he expects council will be quick to approve the proposal.

“I can’t imagine why anyone would vote against the recommendations today,” he said. “I think they are critical if you want to protect the economy and if you want to protect public health.”

Nenshi said the proposal comes this late in the pandemic as the city has begun to see increases case numbers amid reopening Calgary’s economy.

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“A lot of people are saying, ‘Why didn’t you just do this in April,’ and the answer is because everyone was at home,” he said.

“Why we’re talking about the face coverings now is because we’re easing restrictions because people are out and about more, and so we’ve got to be really practical about this.”

Nenshi added that passing the motion now is an important step in giving the city the appropriate means to enact more regulations as needed over the coming months.

“Give our city manager the ability, over the course of the summer, to set criteria triggers for city-owned facilities,” he said.

“In case the numbers continue to get worse while council is on its summer break, then we can enact that.”

Read more: Alberta set to resume public mask distribution program on July 13

Should the proposal be passed by council, Nenshi said the city will focus its time on educating residents rather than penalizing them.

“As always, we’re not that interested in giving people tickets, we’re much more interested in education over enforcement,” Nenshi said.

Bhardwaj added that by simply enacting a policy, residents are more likely to comply.

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“The vast majority of evidence has shown that when masks are made mandatory the vast majority of people abide by the law without any penalty and without any enforcement,” he said.

Face mask mandates spark protests across Canada
Face mask mandates spark protests across Canada

During the proposal, administration presented a COVID-19 snapshot survey of 500 Calgarians which showed three-quarters of residents support making face coverings mandatory in public spaces. However, some Calgarians are still wary of a mask bylaw being implemented.

On Sunday, anti-mask rallies were held in both Edmonton and Calgary where residents expressed their concern over being forced to wear these face coverings in specific locations.

But Nenshi noted the policy would have exceptions to those who need it, including small children and people with medical conditions.

If the proposal is passed, Calgary will join several other communities across the country, in provinces such as Ontario and Quebec, to make face masks mandatory in specific settings.

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City council is set to provide an answer to the proposal in the immediate future.