In a very tight vote, Edmonton city council voted to deactivate the mandatory face covering bylaw along with the province, on July 1, when Alberta enters Stage 3 of its Open For Summer plan.
Masks will still be required on transit, and in taxis, ride-sharing services, continuing care and acute care settings.
Third reading on the amendment was passed in a vote of seven to six on Friday.
The amendment reads: “Given the recently announced provincial Open for Summer plan, which includes expiry of nearly all provincial public health orders in Stage 3, this report recommends deactivating the bylaw concurrent with the start of Stage 3.
“Should council wish to consider an alternative approach, other options are also presented.”
Councillors started talking about lifting the mask mandate earlier this week, but paused discussion on it for “sober second thought.”
Councillors said it is “a heated issue” and one they heard a lot about from constituents.
“I’m glad we’ve had the chance to reflect and hear from our public on this,” Mayor Don Iveson said. “It’s a good thing.
“Our council is split because our public is split.”
Councillor Bev Esslinger pointed out that Alberta health experts still suggest people wear masks, especially in indoor or crowded settings.
“I would encourage everyone to continue to wear their masks,” she said. “That’s the recommendation, not the mandate.”
Under Stage 3 of the province’s Open for Summer plan, which comes into effect July 1, the provincial mask mandate will come to an end, apart from in some specific settings.
Alberta’s chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw said masks will still be required in continuing care and acute care settings, on public transit, in taxis and in ride-sharing vehicles until further notice, “given the closed indoor environment of these spaces and to protect those who have not been able to be fully vaccinated yet.”
“Masking remains a very reasonable choice for people to make and it’s going to be really important as we move forward into Stage 3 for people to give each other the space that they need to navigate how they want to manage those risks,” she continued.
Several councillors shared their disappointment and frustration Friday that this debate had led to their colleagues being attacked on social media.
“Since this discussion began, I’ve seen my colleagues on either side of this decision targeted in… frankly, in racist ways, in gendered ways,” Coun. Sarah Hamilton said.
“It’s incumbent on us… to build bridges and build a culture of assurance,” she said.
Several councillors said they would have liked to have extended the mandatory mask bylaw for a few more weeks, to offer a buffer until more Edmontonians are able to be fully vaccinated.
“I would like to exercise a bit more caution as we enter this new phase,” Coun. Andrew Knack said.
“We are removing, as of July 1, all of the tools (to protect against COVID-19)… I thought hanging on to one of those many tools was not an unreasonable perspective.”
Iveson pointed out that 70 per cent of eligible Albertans is actually only about 60.6 per cent of all Albertans, since some can’t be immunized because they’re too young or have underlying conditions that prevent it.
“Two in five people are walking around with either no protection or with some immunity — perhaps if they had a case of COVID and have some lagged immunity — their only other mitigation from each other might be masking… and it looks like that will be voluntary.
“Masking for a few more weeks would help the 40 per cent of Albertans, give or take — as they present in Edmonton — who either can’t get vaccinated or won’t get vaccinated… keep them safe,” Iveson said.
Others thought it was best to align with the provincial rules.
“The province has a ministry of health,” Coun. Tim Cartmell said, “all kinds of things that we don’t.”
He said the ministry of health has statistics, modelling data, the ability to analyze that data and predict risk, access to those who operate health facilities.
“We don’t have that feedback in our bureaucracy.”
He added Dr. Chris Sikora, Alberta Health Services medical officer of health for the Edmonton zone, “has told us that ending this bylaw is a reasonable course of action.”
“Experts have told us what’s reasonable — not optimal,” Coun. Aaron Paquette countered.
Edmonton’s mandatory face coverings bylaw came into effect on Aug. 1, 2020 and requires people to wear masks or face coverings in all indoor public spaces and on public vehicles, such as the LRT, buses and vehicles for hire.
The current city bylaw was set to be in effect until Dec. 31, 2021.
The Alberta government made masks mandatory provincewide in December 2020.
In his presentation to council on Tuesday, city manager Andre Corbould cited several factors for the recommendation to align the city’s mask rules with the province’s, including the significant decline in active COVID-19 cases in Edmonton.
Case numbers went from over 6,000 in early May to about 246 cases as of Thursday — which is the lowest active case count the city has seen since last June.
Corbould also cited the city’s R value, which has dropped to 0.57, and decreasing hospitalizations and ICU admissions. As of Thursday, there were 49 people in hospital with COVID-19 in Edmonton, 18 of whom were being treated in ICU.
The city manager also said vaccination rates are increasing in the city.
Councillors were presented with three additional options, one of which would have seen the mask bylaw come to an end in Edmonton once 50 per cent of the eligible population in the Edmonton zone was fully vaccinated with two doses.
The second option would have fully repealed the bylaw when Alberta enters Stage 3, meaning council would have to pass a new bylaw in the event COVID-19 conditions changed.
The third option would have seen no changes and kept the mask coverings bylaw in place until Dec. 31, with the option for council to review at any time.
— With files from Caley Ramsay, Global News