The City of Lethbridge is debating a new bylaw that would make masks mandatory in all indoor public spaces.
Bylaw 6239, the Temporary Mandatory Face Coverings Bylaw, went through second reading at Monday’s city council meeting and will be back before council on Aug. 24.
The move to make masks compulsory in all public indoor spaces comes after city-owned facilities started requiring face coverings last week.
Coun. Rob Miyashiro moved to have the bylaw fast-tracked, saying he didn’t want to wait two weeks for second and third reading. The vote to move the item to the meeting’s primary agenda was passed unanimously, meaning that with a majority vote it could move to second reading, and with a unanimous vote it could have moved to a third and final reading on Monday night.
But lengthy debate and disagreement among councillors prevented the bylaw from moving on to third reading Monday.
“I think we all want the best bylaw possible,” said Mayor Chris Spearman of Monday’s debate, which lasted more than two hours. “We’re all concerned about the health and safety of our citizens, and there’s some division on council, the same way that there’s some division in the community.”
A 6-2 vote — with councillors Blaine Hyggen and Ryan Parker opposed, and Joe Mauro absent — was the majority needed to move into second reading, where four amendments were made to the original bylaw.
First, Mayor Spearman’s amendment to include exemptions for people with underlying medical conditions or disabilities inhibiting the wearing of a face covering was carried 7-1.
Spearman also brought forth a second amendment, requiring all businesses to post signage notifying the public of the masking requirements. That amendment passed in a 6-2 vote.
Coun. Belinda Crowson proposed a sunset clause to end the proposed bylaw when it is no longer needed. The amendment passed 6-2, and will explain that the bylaw will be revoked at the regularly scheduled meeting of city council following Dec. 31, unless extended by council resolution.
Finally, Coun. Jeff Coffman moved to have the possibility of prison removed from the section of the bylaw that explained enforcement. The amendment carried 6-2, keeping the proposed $100 fine for contravention.
Enforcement was a major talking point for council on Monday, with Parker calling the proposed rule a “lawless bylaw” that will be difficult to enforce.
Spearman says the point of the bylaw is more about educating people, not about imposing draconian rules.
“If we get 80 per cent of the population wearing masks and 20 per cent aren’t, it’s still not practical to pursue charges against 20 per cent of the population,” Spearman said.
Another big point of discussion was the bylaw’s potential impact on business owners.
Hunter Heggie, the owner of King of Trade and the chair of the Downtown BRZ, says his only worry is the bylaw putting his staff in an awkward situation with customers.
“City hall has been on our side, and pushing and helping us, and so I think most businesses want to try and help them as well,” Heggie said. “But we’re not in the business of policing, and we’re not in the business of enforcing bylaws.”
Heggie says he hopes that council will take note of Calgary’s mandatory masking bylaw, which says businesses are not expected to evict or refuse service to customers not wearing masks.
The bylaw needed a unanimous vote to move into a third and final reading on Monday, yet with opposition from councillors Hyggen and Parker, the topic was tabled two weeks.
“A week ago no one knew this was even coming,” said Parker, who believes more public engagement is needed.
“I think we’re going to hear a lot of push back, but a lot of people may embrace what we could be doing. All I want is an opportunity to ponder, and right now, where I’m at right now, I’m not in support of the existing bylaw, based on the facts and the information I know now.”
But now all councillors think public engagement is necessary.
“I hear my colleagues talk about, ‘Oh, we need public input and there’s not enough evidence,’ and are you kidding me? We’ve been in COVID shutdown since March,” Coun. Miyashiro said. “I work in a seniors centre. I know exactly what the issues are with COVID and how it’s spread and what the precautions are that you need to take.”
The mandatory mask bylaw will be back before council at the Aug. 24 meeting.