As Canada wades deeper into the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, Alberta is the only province to hold out against implementing a provincial mask mandate.
According to sociologist Dr. Amy Kaler, that could be contributing to some Albertans’ complacency, and in certain cases defiance, of pandemic-related public health measures and municipal mask bylaws.
“It looks arbitrary,” she said of the “patch work” of various mask bylaws, restrictions and public health measures in place in different parts of the province.
“It looks like… these are just weird, made up rules. Do we have a different virus in Edmonton than we do in Fort MacLeod?”
As of Friday, Alberta had 10,655 active cases of COVID-19. Of those, 8,960 — or nearly 82 per cent, have an unknown exposure to the virus, meaning contact tracers can’t pinpoint where or how the person contracted it.
Kaler said it’s hard for people to make sense of having a “magic line” on the map where in one jurisdiction, people have strict cohort restrictions or there are curfews on restaurants and bars, but other municipalities have more relaxed guidelines.
“The key with public health messaging… it has to be factual, clear, simple,” she said.
“And having these regulations here, there and all over, created by different groups of people with, what looks superficially to be kind of meaningless distinctions between one place and another — that’s the opposite of evidence based, clear and simple.”
Kaler said the government sets the baseline when it comes to things like public health measures, and said it’s time for a “strong statement” on masking, and other virus mitigation measures, as COVID-19 cases become more generalized throughout the population. Doing so, she said, would enhance public trust in the government’s pandemic response.
“I think it’s a real dereliction of duty to to keep going back to: ‘Toughen up, be smart, make make the right choices, make the right decisions,” she said.
“I think that a display of resolve and commitment to something other than, ‘Well, individuals make their own choices,’ would be really important.”
In an emailed statement, Alberta Health spokesperson Zoe Cooper said the government’s focus is on urging Albertans to follow public health measures, including new ones introduced last week “specifically targeted to reduce the spread in areas where we are seeing an increase in cases.”
“Reducing the spread requires reducing the amount of time that Albertans socialize in close contact and we cannot monitor what people choose to do within their homes,” Cooper said. “We need Albertans to answer the call by following the measures in place and limit social and close contacts.”
Cooper said the government supports the jurisdictions that have mandated masks, and will continue to closely monitor COVID-19 data and consider if adjustments are needed to the current approach.
When asked about a mask mandate on Friday, chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw said “no decision has been made on whether a mask mandate would be part of any additional measures in the province.”
“We are watching neighbouring provinces and looking at the evidence so that we can consider options based on the evidence of effectiveness as well as the context in Alberta,” she said.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Friday that provinces don’t “need permission or direction from the federal government” to implement measures to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.
“I know that there are certain regions who have made decisions to protect and to close their own borders. The Atlantic bubble certainly didn’t happen because the federal government mandated it. The provinces in the Atlantic stepped up and limited travel in their bubble and it has worked very, very well,” Trudeau said.
“They just did what worked for them. Our northern territories have regularly brought in restrictions to protect themselves as well. Provinces have lots of tools at their disposal.”
Cooper said “no single strategy can control this pandemic,” adding that non-medical masks are one tool the government encourages Albertans to use.
“Masks alone are not enough to stop the spread of COVID-19,” Cooper said. “Physical distancing is crucial to continuing to limit the spread of the virus.”
Kaler also said that without a mask mandate, the province is putting retailers, those in the hospitality industry and places like grocery stores and pharmacies in a position where they’re responsible for enforcing regulations.
“That’s not their job,” she said.
“The job of ensuring that people are wearing masks, that we’re doing what we know, scientifically, has been shown to reduce COVID-19 and to turn this around — that job belongs to the provincial government.”
Kaler said the province also needs to “drain the political energy out of masks and the idea that you’re making a statement by wearing one or not wearing one.
“This is not a political symbol, this is just like a seatbelt. This is like what you do because it makes everybody safer.”