Calgary’s mask bylaw will be lifted after a vote Monday morning.
City council voted 10-4 to repeal the bylaw that has been in place since Aug. 1, 2020.
Calgary’s mask mandate precedes the province’s indoor mask direction that was in place from Dec. 8, 2020 to July 1, 2021.
Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi said it’s a change in council sentiment from two weeks ago.
“What you saw today was actually a very broad consensus of council agreeing on the right way to move forward based on the data,” Nenshi said following the vote. “With the exception of one member of council, there was no politics involved in this.”
Only councillors Gian-Carlo Carra, George Chahal, Druh Farrell and Jyoti Gondek voted in opposition to repealing the bylaw.
Gondek said she had hoped to see the bylaw in place for another month.
“I think we could have to waited four more weeks just to keep people protected and safe,” the Ward 3 councillor said. “But council’s made a decision.”
On June 22, council asked city officials to look at how the COVID-19 pandemic evolved in the next two weeks.
Calgary Emergency Management Agency Chief Sue Henry said the COVID-19 metrics requested by council two weeks ago to make the decision — new case rate, positivity rate, hospitalizations and ICU admissions — had all trended down recently.
Vaccinations in the city have also trended up, with Calgary outpacing the rest of the province. Henry said as of a few days ago, 44.6 per cent of eligible Calgarians have received their second dose of COVID-19 vaccine, an increase of 12 per cent in the last two weeks. Henry also said 78.5 per cent of eligible Calgarians received their first dose.
“When we take these four different indicators into consideration, the trends are definitely encouraging after so many months of challenges with COVID-19 in our city,” Henry said.
Ward 13 Coun. Diane Colley-Urquhart, who has been a staunch supporter of the city’s mask mandate, said the recent data has changed her mind on the need for the mandate.
“The bylaw was very effective and it stopped the second wave that was gearing up to last the summer,” Colley-Urquhart said. “And this council was effective in halting that desire.
“We went from 30 per cent compliance to 98 per cent in a day.”
She added she is concerned about Calgary children who are still unvaccinated.
Children under 12 are not yet advised to get vaccinated against the novel coronavirus.
“The (Alberta) population of zero to 11 that is not eligible for vaccination is 660,747 individuals,” Henry told council.
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The CEMA chief also noted that among younger age ranges, provincial data shows only 16.5 per cent of children aged 12 to 14 are fully vaccinated and just more than a quarter of Albertans between 20 and 24 years old have their second dose.
A ‘false sense of security’
Dr. Craig Jenne, associate professor in the University of Calgary’s department of microbiology, immunology and infectious diseases, said he would have liked to see the mask bylaw remain in place for a few more weeks, to allow for more Calgarians to get a second dose.
“It’s only a matter of really a couple of weeks before we get to that threshold of the majority of Albertans having a second shot and perhaps another week or two after that for them to develop immunity,” Jenne said.
“That safe goal is well within sight, but it is still a few weeks away and things such as masks can really fill that gap until people get their second vaccine dose.”
Jenne warned against a “false sense of security” given more than half of Albertans are unvaccinated against the virus.
“The reality is, we really do need to get second doses in arms and additionally provide that two to three weeks after the second dose for the people to develop immunity,” Jenne said.
The mayor said it’ll be in restaurants and retail stores where this bylaw change will be seen the most. Diners will no longer need to wear masks when arriving at and leaving their table. And businesses will have to make their own decision on whether to require patrons to wear masks.
“If they have rules that you have to wear a shirt, you respect that. If they have rules that you have to wear a mask, you respect that. And I really encourage everyone not to take it out on the retail workers — it’s not their decision or their job, and it’s not fair to them.”
Masking in city buildings
Council also voted 11-3 to have masking rules stay in place for all city facilities and vehicles, such as city hall, recreation facilities and transit, until city manager David Duckworth removes it — policy powers he already has under current legislation. Only councillors Sean Chu, Jeromy Farkas and Joe Magliocca voted against.
Farkas said keeping the same masking rules in place for city-owned facilities was giving city management a “blank cheque.”
“I do have quite significant concerns about the city in terms of being the only one providing some services,” Farkas said. “So I’d want to make sure that there’s reasonable accommodation in place.”
During their presentation, city officials said keeping a mask policy in city buildings also helps protect city employees, a notion Gondek agreed with.
“We are an employer and as an operator, we are obligated to follow the guidelines set out by Dr. Hinshaw. And her guidelines are quite specific about taking responsibility,” Gondek said.
“So I believe our administration will do the right thing here.”
The mayor said the city also needed to have protections in place for the roughly 400,000 Calgary children who aren’t eligible to be vaccinated.
“There are certain specific instances, for example, if they’re doing an indoor day camp, where we might want to continue to think about (masking),” Nenshi said.
Future mask mandates?
Dr. Brian Conway, medical director of the Vancouver Infectious Diseases Centre, said Canadians shouldn’t throw out their reusable masks, as they could be used to control other outbreaks of respiratory diseases.
“I’m even wondering if we get influenza back again in the next winter season, whether we might consider asking people to wear masks at the height of an influenza outbreak and have that be part of our of our new normal in the very long term to control the spread of all respiratory infections — to blunt their effect on individuals and societies,” Conway said.
Nenshi said if the metrics indicated a need to do so, reinstating the city’s mask bylaw would be politically difficult.
“Particularly with the new hard line that the premier is taking on this, which, as I mentioned, is ironic because last summer he wanted us to do this for him,” the mayor said.
Nenshi added putting the bylaw back in is the last thing he would want to do.
“Our job is to protect the health of Calgarians. That is our lane. That’s what we do. And so if we’re seeing a situation, particularly where the health-care system is being overwhelmed, then we will look at all of our options in the council chamber to be opened up.”
Ward 7 Coun. Druh Farrell objected to the third reading of the bylaw to repeal the mask mandate, delaying the proceedings. That third reading came Monday afternoon, with the mayor signing the papers to add the bylaw to the books shortly after.
Calgary was one of two municipalities in the province that still had its indoor mask bylaw after the provincial mandate expired. Canmore town council is expected to review its mask bylaw Tuesday morning.
–with files from Heather Yourex-West, Global News