Edmonton has moved to make masks mandatory in all city-owned and operated amenities, attractions and services, including on public transit.
The recommendation was made by administration Thursday during the city’s emergency advisory committee meeting and the new requirement is set to come into effect on Aug. 1.
“This decision was not taken lightly, but our administration made it because it will help keep Edmontonians safe from COVID-19,” Mayor Don Iveson said, adding the directive will make residents feel more safe and confident using public transit.
“Folks who need our transit system don’t always have a choice when it comes to using transit. They need it to get to work and soon students will need it to get to school.”
Interim city manager Adam Laughlin said because shields are installed on the entire ETS fleet, there is a barrier between the driver and passengers, so ETS operators will likely not have to wear a mask while driving.
“At this point in time I’m anticipating that if there is a shield, the operator doesn’t need to wear a mask,” Laughlin said.
“However, over the next few days here we’ll be working through the different protocols and procedures and directives that we need to have in place to ensure that our employees are safe and that will be another one that we will be reviewing.”
Laughlin said the directive does not require bylaw changes (Level 2 below). Should city council move to make masks mandatory in all indoor spaces (Level 3) —beyond just city-operated facilities — city officials said they have started to draft a bylaw in order to move to the stricter regulations.
“I think Level 2 is a perfectly reasonable approach right now,” said Dr. Chris Sikora, medical officer of health in the Edmonton zone with Alberta Health Services, who joined the meeting over the phone Thursday.
Laughlin said exceptions include children under two years old, people with underlying medical issues, people who are unable to put on and remove a mask without assistance, people engaging in physical activity and those who are eating and drinking inside an establishment.
Some of the key factors considered when looking at mandatory masks are the number of active cases in Edmonton, the predominance of community transfer, advice from AHS and the number of areas in the city on the province’s “watch” list.
Earlier this week, Calgary announced it will make masks mandatory in all indoor public settings and on public transit effective Aug. 1.
Laughlin said the Edmonton recommendation was based on the current COVID-19 situation in the city. He said the numbers and transmission patterns were compared to Calgary’s, which found Edmonton’s overall numbers relatively flat over the last six weeks compared to Calgary.
However, Laughlin also pointed to Calgary as an example of how quickly the situation can change.
City officials pointed out that Edmonton’s spread is largely related to congregate living and the COVID-19 outbreak at the Misericordia Hospital, rather than a result of community spread.
A number of councillors were in support of taking it one step further to approve Level 3 sooner than later, including the mayor and Councillor Michael Walters.
“I absolutely believe we should go to Phase 3 (Level 3) and we should go to Phase 3 yesterday,” Iveson said. “If we had a bylaw before us today, I would move first reading but we don’t… If the province isn’t going to go there, we must.”
“Wearing a mask is the new version of staying home,” Walters said, referring to the measures that were recommended at the beginning of the pandemic. “Wearing masks today is the staying home of March or April.
“I don’t see enough people wearing them to feel too comfortable not enacting Level 3 very quickly.”
Iveson called for an “extraordinary meeting of council” to be held Wednesday, July 30, to consider a bylaw to mandate face coverings in all public indoor spaces to be consistent with city facilities and transit.
“I don’t want to wait until August to have that conversation,” Iveson said.
“There are clearly strong and diverse opinions, so it will be a vigorous debate.”
City survey results on mandating masks
City officials said a survey of about 6,000 Edmontonians, conducted online and open to Insight community members, showed 71 per cent of respondents said making masks mandatory would make them likely to return to using public transit.
Of those, 31 per cent said masks are the “one thing” that would make them return to transit use.
The same survey showed 76 per cent of respondents said masks should be made mandatory in all indoor public spaces. Fourteen per cent of respondents said masks should not be made mandatory, according to the city survey results released at the committee meeting.
Who will enforce mask policy?
When asked who would be responsible for enforcement of the mask policy, David Aitken, the City of Edmonton’s manager of community standards and neighbourhoods, said the city would start with education and awareness in hopes of seeking compliance from the public. He said people could be denied service if they refuse to wear a mask, but didn’t specify who would be responsible for that enforcement.
“That’s a work in progress. It takes a movement to Level 3 and a bylaw piece to put in place those formal mechanisms for sanctioning such as fines,” Aitken said, stressing the importance of public education.
“We’ll get the vast majority of people complying.”
Iveson had hoped the directive on mandatory masks would come from the province. However, Premier Jason Kenney said Wednesday that the decision to mandate masks should be made locally.
“This is a huge and diverse province. The challenges a very dense city might face on crowded buses couldn’t be more different than a remote rural municipality where there are no active cases,” Kenney said.
“The premier stepped away from responsibility on this question and dumped it on municipalities,” Iveson said at an earlier media availability Thursday morning.
When asked about mandating masks Thursday, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health said there are a number of factors to consider.
“We’ve seen some challenges in places where masking has been mandatory and, we’re again, wanting to learn from those situations,” Dr. Deena Hinshaw said.
“We also know that, while I mentioned there are cases across the province, there are certain locations that do have higher risk than others. So before we would implement a province-wide measure, I think we would need to consider whether that same measure is required across the province.”
Hinshaw said another concern of hers is that if people are too focused on masking, it could distract from “all of the other measures that are critically important.”
“There is some evidence to suggest that, for example, consistent physical distancing — when that’s achieved — is more effective than masking,” she said.
“So we just need to make sure that we’re assessing the evidence, understanding that risk of harm, looking at the provincial picture versus the local picture and if there are local settings where it makes sense based on epidemiology, then the local jurisdictions do have the tools to be able to move forward with this as an addition to their particular protocols.”
Iveson said there is still an appetite from other municipalities in the Edmonton metro region for consistency when it comes to mask usage. Consultation is underway between municipal leaders, according to Laughlin.
Councillors Sarah Hamilton and Mike Nickel were not present for the meeting. All other councillors voted in favour of approving Level 2, apart from councillors Tony Caterina and Jon Dziadyk who voted against it.