Alberta ministers defend physical-distancing protocols after online backlash

Click to play video: 'COVID-19: Hinshaw responds to photo of Premier Kenney and ministers not wearing masks' COVID-19: Hinshaw responds to photo of Premier Kenney and ministers not wearing masks
WATCH: Alberta's top doctor responded to a photo circulating online of Premier Jason Kenney and ministers Kaycee Madu and Tracy Allard not wearing a mask during a town hall, while Hinshaw herself is seen wearing a mask. – Dec 17, 2020

A photo of a COVID Care Team meeting, posted on Twitter by Alberta’s justice minister, is creating a stir.

Read more: Alberta expanding free self-isolation hotel program, sending COVID-19 care teams to hard-hit communities

The photograph shows several provincial officials taking part in a “virtual town hall.” They are spaced out around a large table in a semi-circle, including chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Justice Minister Kaycee Madu, Premier Jason Kenney and Minister of Municipal Affairs Tracy Allard.

Madu, Kenney and Allard are not wearing masks in the photo.

However, all participants were properly spaced, as per guidelines, according to an Alberta government spokesperson.

“Masks were removed while speaking, just as is done during a press conference,” Blaise Boehmer said.

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He also shared another photo with Global News — one that showed the meeting setup from a different angle, clearly showing a gap between participants.

Another photo shows the setup of a COVID Care Teams meeting Dec. 16, 2020. Supplied: Blaise Boehmer, Government of Alberta

The latest public health measures made masks mandatory across the province in all indoor public places and indoor workplaces, effective Dec. 8. The mask requirement includes any location where employees are present in-person and all work sites where masks won’t pose a safety risk.

Read more: Alberta’s new COVID-19 measures ban in-person dining, outdoor gatherings; retail to remain open

When asked about the photo and meeting setup on Thursday, Hinshaw said:

“The provincial mask regulation or requirement is that people wear a mask while in indoor public spaces or workplaces unless a series of exemptions or conditions are met. One of those is… if someone is at a work station two metres distant from all others, they may remove their mask temporarily, as I do when I’m speaking at the podium.

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“I do, typically, when I’m in a meeting space, keep my mask on at all times, just because that’s the easiest thing for me to do,” Alberta’s top doctor said.

Hinshaw was also asked the message that photo might send to Albertans.

“But, at the same time, that rule was set to be able to facilitate people temporarily removing their mask — perhaps while they’re speaking –again, when they’re making sure they’re distanced from all others.”

Click to play video: 'Worst single day: 30 new COVID-19 deaths in Alberta Thursday' Worst single day: 30 new COVID-19 deaths in Alberta Thursday
Worst single day: 30 new COVID-19 deaths in Alberta Thursday – Dec 17, 2020

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The initial photo sparked backlash, with some people calling it hypocritical, non-compliant and saying leaders were failing to show a good “example of personal responsibility by following the province’s health directives.”

“How can Albertans get on board with the seriousness of COVID when Jason Kenney can’t even follow his own rules?” one Twitter user replied.

“What happened to mandatory masks in all indoor workplaces?” another wrote.

“Please wear masks in these meetings. It’s safer for everyone around you and you would be setting a way better example for others. It’s hard to speak out against the anti-mask rallies when you’re not even wearing one in these photo ops… that you post yourself,” another replied.

Opposition leader Rachel Notley said she didn’t know the exact scene or if the photo actually showed how far apart the participants were.

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“I think that for the justice minister to post that picture is problematic,” she said.

“We are asking Albertans to make a lot of sacrifices. And so this government needs to show that they are doing that as well.

“In addition, this is a government that dragged its feet to the very last minute in terms of implementing a province-wide mask mandate. And as a result, we have some resistance to it. So it is important for them to show leadership on this issue,” the NDP leaders said.

“I would urge them to change the kinds of pictures that they’re posting, to show leadership on the issue, and of course I would once again urge all Albertans to follow the rules and wear masks where required.”

Read more: Alberta-wide mask mandate would create backlash, Premier Kenney says

Health Minister Tyler Shandro said he wasn’t aware of the situation.

“Obviously, all of my colleagues, we are wearing masks as often as we can. I don’t know the circumstances and why masks might have not been in that photograph,” Shandro said.

“As I’m not wearing right here in front of the microphone — from the advice we’ve received from the chief medical officer of health, when we’re here speaking at a podium, it’s different from a work station, as it’s been defined in the public health measures and the public health restrictions.”

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