Masks or face coverings in all indoor public spaces and on public transit became mandatory in Edmonton on Aug. 1. Since then, the city has issued 3,866 exemption cards to people with conditions that make it difficult to wear a mask.
That number represents less than one half of one per cent of Edmonton’s population, David Aitken, chair of the city’s COVID-19 task team, said Tuesday.
The exemption program started Saturday, when cards became available at city-run recreation centres. Aiken said the city was expanding the system to include mail-in and online forms in the “next day or so” to improve accessibility.
The initial bylaw, which passed in a vote of 10-3, makes masks mandatory on public transit, in all city-owned facilities, all indoor public spaces such as retail stores, grocery stores, entertainment venues, recreation centres, restaurants and transit stations. It also applies to vehicles for hire like Uber and taxis.
Face coverings can be removed when eating or drinking in a designated seating areas, when taking part in a religious or spiritual ceremony or when engaged in water activities or exercise.
There are several exceptions to the bylaw, including children under two years old; people who are unable to place, use, or remove a face covering without assistance; and those unable to wear a face covering due to a mental or physical concern or limitation.
Aiken said the city has heard from people who are exempt “being confronted and in some cases, denied service.
“This is not the Edmonton way.”
“We believe that asking questions about individuals’ health status was not appropriate and we should have no way to evaluate the status if we were to require proof, like a doctor’s note,” Aiken said, adding requiring a doctor’s note for the exemption card would be an “unnecessary burden” on the health care system.
He stressed the number of exemption cards being issued remains low and that Edmontonians’ compliance with the face covering bylaw remains high.
As of Tuesday morning, compliance was estimated to be 85 per cent overall, over 96 per cent in city rec centres and over 90 per cent on transit.
“If we see a significant reduction in our compliance levels, that would be one of the indicators” in looking at changing the exemption program, Aiken said.
Face covering exemption cards are not part of the City of Calgary’s mandatory mask bylaw.
Exemption cards were not part of Edmonton’s original bylaw that was voted on by council. They were added later by city administration in response to citizen concerns, Aiken said.
“We know that this program is not without its flaws, but on balance, we believe it strikes the right mix of elements that compassionately support those who feel they need some way of signalling their exemption,” he explained.
However, one Edmonton physician says that he believes there are actually very few people with legitimate medical exemptions.
“There are very, very few medically indicated reasons for not wearing a mask,” Dr. Darren Markland, an intensive care physician at the Royal Alexandra Hospital, said Sunday.
“And they all tend to revolve around neurological or psychiatric conditions.
“I’m not saying these aren’t real things, but they are the minority of cases.”
“Masks work because people want to use them. If you are concerned about your fellow citizen, and you are concerned about keeping the pandemic in check until we have a cure or a vaccine, then you’re going to do a mask and you’re going to do it properly,” Markland said.
Aiken said the city understands businesses have concerns about the card program and it will continue to work with them.
And, while businesses have the right to refuse service, he’s asking them to not refuse service to those who have a valid reason for not wearing a mask.
“It is unfortunate and disappointing to know that some people will see this program as a way to avoid wearing a mask or face covering when they are more than able to do so,” Aiken said.
“We trust that compassion will continue as those who can wear masks do so, and those who cannot are treated with understanding.”
The fine for breaking the bylaw is $100, but the city says it will focus on education rather than enforcement.
“We also believe that most Edmontonians are doing — and will do — the right thing.”
With files from Global News’ Allison Bench and Caley Ramsay