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COVID-19: City council to look at keeping masks mandatory on Edmonton Transit

Click to play video: 'Masks still required in some circumstances once COVID-19 restrictions are lifted in Alberta' Masks still required in some circumstances once COVID-19 restrictions are lifted in Alberta
WATCH (June 22): Even after Alberta enters Stage 3 of the COVID-19 reopening plan, masks will still be required when riding transit, in rideshares and in continuing care and acute care settings such as hospitals. Julia Wong has the details from Dr. Deena Hinshaw's Tuesday update. – Jun 22, 2021

As of Aug. 16, Alberta is set to lift more COVID-19 public health restrictions, including the provincial mandatory masking orders which cover public transit and ride-share vehicles.

Edmonton’s face-covering bylaw remains deactivated, but some city councillors expressed concerns during an emergency advisory committee (EAC) meeting Thursday.

Read more: Calgary should ‘hold the line’ on mask bylaw: Chahal

Some were worried that recommending masks rather than making them mandatory would make people using public transit feel less safe. Others expressed concern that the Alberta Health data guiding the Aug. 16 decisions hasn’t been shared.

Dr. Michael Zakhary, a medical officer of health for Alberta Health Services, took part in Thursday’s EAC meeting. He said he hasn’t seen the Alberta Health data either.

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“I would like to see that modelling and what it means for us,” Mayor Don Iveson said.

“That vacuum fills itself with speculation, which is not helping us make decisions.

Read more: Alberta to adjust COVID-19 masking, isolation, testing rules over next month

When the provincial order expires on Monday, the city’s mask bylaw remains deactivated. Acting city manager Catrin Owen said city administration considered advice from the chief medical officer of health, public health and other jurisdictions.

Administration was not recommending any changes to the mask bylaw deactivation, Owen told the EAC on Thursday.

Instead, she said the city would encourage transit riders to wear masks but they would not be required. Masks would be offered to anyone who wants one for free.

The message would be: “Whatever mask decision you make, you are welcome on transit,” Owen said.

City staff said extending the face-covering bylaw would be difficult to enforce without the power of Alberta’s Public Health Order.

“Provincial public health orders are very strong and unambiguous,” the mayor explained.

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“It’s still possible for us to use bylaw powers to impose a mask mandate as we did previously ahead of the province, but the tools are just not as robust, the fines are not as significant, there are a variety of things that are just not as impactful… but it’s still in our authority,” he said, adding local public transit rules would be very much in the city’s jurisdiction.

Click to play video: 'No more masks on  transit, isolation of positive COVID-19 cases come Aug. 16 in Alberta' No more masks on transit, isolation of positive COVID-19 cases come Aug. 16 in Alberta
No more masks on transit, isolation of positive COVID-19 cases come Aug. 16 in Alberta – Jul 28, 2021

When making its recommendation, city administration “leaned heavily” on the advice of the public health authority, Owen said, “not stepping into a health space given we don’t have medical experts on our team.”

“I’m a little bit concerned here that we may not be following best practices as far as science (goes),” Councillor Aaron Paquette said.

He said COVID-19 cases are going up, vaccination rates have slowed and Alberta will stop “testing and tracing as we know it.”

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Paquette expressed concern that removing the mandatory mask rule on transit right now wouldn’t be wise.

“With all this information, how does this inspire confidence in users of transit?”

Councillor Scott McKeen asked if he could put forward a motion to reactivate or extend the city’s face-covering bylaw but was told that procedure does not fall under the EAC’s jurisdiction.

Therefore, the report will be shared with council and added to Monday’s council meeting agenda.

Read more: Edmonton’s mandatory mask bylaw will end when Alberta enters Stage 3 on July 1

Iveson said council decided to suspend its face-covering bylaw so that it could reactivate it in the event of a fourth wave.

“To know whether we’re in a fourth wave, you would need a robust testing regime, which is going away,” he said.

Still, he said the waste water testing being done by Alberta Health will provide “at least some proxy for an R-value or some sense that you’re accelerating into a situation.”

Iveson said he’d prefer the province extend public health measures but if the change happens as planned on Monday, he believes there’s a will on council to continue requiring masks on public transit and ride-share vehicles.

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Click to play video: 'Albertans protest ending mandatory COVID-19 isolation, masking and testing changes' Albertans protest ending mandatory COVID-19 isolation, masking and testing changes
Albertans protest ending mandatory COVID-19 isolation, masking and testing changes – Jul 30, 2021

The last public engagement done on the issue of masks and COVID-19 on Edmonton Transit was done in June, when 50 per cent of respondents said they felt comfortable on their transit journey.

The emergency committee heard that COVID-19 case numbers in the Edmonton zone increased after public health restrictions were lifted on July 1, but hospitalization and ICU rates “aren’t seeing the same growth,” a testament to the effectiveness of vaccines, Owen said.

She said about 79 per cent of eligible Edmontonians have had at least one dose.

The EAC also heard that transit ridership is going up but is still lower than what is considered regular levels.

ETS said it would prefer to have a consistent message on masking to riders and would also prefer to have direction from council before Monday.

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