Alberta municipalities will need province’s OK for face mask or COVID-19 vaccine passport bylaws

Click to play video: 'Adjustments needed as COVID-19 response moves from pandemic to endemic: Hinshaw'
Adjustments needed as COVID-19 response moves from pandemic to endemic: Hinshaw
Alberta chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw said after two years, many adjustments will be needed as society moves from dealing with COVID-19 as a pandemic to living alongside it as an endemic disease. She said vaccinations will continue to be the most effective way to prevent serious illnesses and deaths. – Mar 8, 2022

Alberta’s UCP government introduced amendments to the Municipal Government Act Tuesday, limiting local governments’ ability to have face-covering or vaccine passport bylaws outside of the province’s rules.

Municipal Affairs Minister Ric McIver introduced Bill 4: Municipal Government (Face Mask and Proof of COVID-19 Vaccination Bylaws) Amendment Act on Tuesday. It passed first reading in the Alberta legislature.

“Our goal is to ensure Alberta has one clear direction as we move forward together,” he said.

“Changes to Municipal Government Act are very narrow and focused very strictly only on public health restrictions related to COVID-19.”

The legislation states a council may not bring in a bylaw regarding face masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19 or another communicable disease unless it is approved by the minister.

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It also states that a council cannot pass a bylaw that requires people to show proof of vaccination against COVID-19 or proof of a negative COVID-19 test on entering a premises unless approved by the minister.

Click to play video: 'Edmonton ends mandatory masking as province introduces legislation to limit COVID-19 rule-making'
Edmonton ends mandatory masking as province introduces legislation to limit COVID-19 rule-making

“The minister shall consider the public interest and consult with the chief medical officer of health appointed under the Public Health Act in determining whether to approve a bylaw or an amendment to a bylaw,” Bill 4 reads.

The legislation does not apply to property owned or leased and operated by a city, McIver added, such as public transit, municipal buildings and city-run rec centres and arenas.

Alberta businesses also have the freedom to make their own decisions, McIver said.

“That’s not to say that those grocery stores, retail businesses can’t put in a mask mandate themselves; they can… That was true during COVID, before COVID and it will be true after COVID.”

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Click to play video: 'Will Edmontonians still have to wear a mask when Alberta’s mandate is lifted?'
Will Edmontonians still have to wear a mask when Alberta’s mandate is lifted?

After the legislation was introduced, Edmonton Mayor Amarjeet Sohi said it was a “sad day.”

“We are treated like kids by the province,” he said during Tuesday’s council meeting.

“Mayor Sohi is entitled to his opinion,” McIver countered. “I respect Mayor Sohi and I respect his opinion.”

McIver said, with so many new faces on Edmonton city council, he hasn’t had the chance to get to know a lot of the councillors, but said he’d describe his relationship with Sohi as “quite good.”

Sohi was also asked about the condition of Edmonton’s relationship with the province.

“I worked hard to reset and rebuild that relationship even since I got elected and I will continue to do that,” the mayor said.

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“It is disappointing that the good faith gestures that I made with well intention to reset that relationship have not been met with the same kind of enthusiasm or the same kind of expectation I was expecting.”

McIver said provincial oversight of municipal bylaws is not unprecedented nor “groundbreaking,” and referenced the Traffic Safety Act.

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“We are defending our authority,” McIver said. “We’re making it clear that we are not ceding our provincial authority to municipalities when it comes to public health.”

When asked how many Alberta municipalities would be affected by the proposed amendments, McIver replied: “one.”

On March 1, Alberta moved into Stage 2 of its reopening plan, lifting nearly all COVID-19 public health measures.

It marked the end of all indoor and outdoor public gathering limits, the lifting of capacity limits at large entertainment venues and the end of the provincial work-from-home order. The provincial mask mandate was also lifted, with some exceptions.

However, some municipalities, including the City of Edmonton, voted to keep their mask mandate in place for a while longer.

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The province previously said that created confusion across Alberta.

Click to play video: 'Mandating against mandates: Alberta to limit municipalities’ ability to have different public health rules'
Mandating against mandates: Alberta to limit municipalities’ ability to have different public health rules

“I think I’ve correctly characterized this very small and very narrow legislation as a defensive maneuver,” McIver said Tuesday.

He stated repeatedly that the ministry of health and its health professionals are the ones responsible for making public health decisions.

“This was never an attempt to restrain the authority of municipalities,” McIver said, adding that “this is the case where one municipality is drifting… into the provincial lane.”

Cathy Heron, head of Alberta Municipalities, said Bill 4, the Municipal Government Amendment Act, has potentially harmful ramifications.

“We are concerned that the government of Alberta is setting a troubling precedent by amending the MGA — Alberta’s principal piece of legislation governing municipalities — without prior consultation,” said Heron, whose organization represents cities, towns and villages across the province.

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“Alberta Municipalities appreciates that the provincial government kept the scope of these legislative amendments very narrow, but we continue to believe that the best public health decisions are those based on science and data, rather than on political differences and calculations.”

Click to play video: 'Changes to legislation could impact municipal leaders beyond Edmonton'
Changes to legislation could impact municipal leaders beyond Edmonton

McIver said the changes would have no impact on the day-to-day operations of “the vast, vast, vast majority of Alberta municipalities,” whose rules already mirror the province’s.

He stressed scope of the proposed amendments is “extremely narrow and strictly focused on public health requirements related to COVID-19 … or similar communicable diseases.”

The changes would take effect after second and third reading and royal assent. A timeline for that has not yet been determined, McIver noted.

He said, however, if Edmonton decided to rescind its face-covering bylaw, the province would have to “think about” moving forward with the amendments to Bill 4.

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Edmonton councillors voted late Tuesday afternoon to rescind the city’s face-covering bylaw. During a special council meeting, it passed by a vote of 8-5.

Chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw was asked Tuesday what she would say if the City of Edmonton asked for her recommendation on whether to keep mandatory masking or drop it.

“A few weeks ago, I made the statement — which I still believe — that masking is a prudent public health measure, and at the same time, the policy rules around masking are difficult ones that have to be made by weighing advantages and disadvantages,” she said.

“It’s critical that we work with local partners as we’re considering how to respond to COVID and how local partners are engaged and how we work with them, those are policy decisions that are made by elected officials.”

Click to play video: '2 years since Alberta’s first confirmed COVID-19 case: ‘We’ve come so far’'
2 years since Alberta’s first confirmed COVID-19 case: ‘We’ve come so far’

Calgary Mayor Jyoti Gondek said she was not briefed on the amendments to Bill 4.

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“As a municipality, we were incredibly concerned that the Municipal Government Act was going to be opened up without any consultation with us, so we did send a letter (and) we did have conversations indicating that if you open up the MGA without us, that’s going to be a travesty.

“I think Minister McIver did the most responsible thing that he possibly could, which was surgically open up the MGA and make the little changes that he needed to make based on what the premier said.

“I’m thankful the minister kept it very, very tight.”

Gondek said she has found McIver to be straightforward and not someone who “dances around the politics of decisions.” However, she believes this move came from the premier.

“I continue to have conversations with ministers about the many things we need to do together. I find that generally those relationships are quite positive. I have no idea if they’re as surprised as I am when the premier says something different than what we’ve all been talking about. I would imagine it catches them off guard.

“I feel like the premier threw something out and said: ‘I don’t like the fact that Edmonton is keeping its mask mandate,’ and I think Minister McIver has to respond accordingly.”

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Calgary’s mask mandate ended when the province lifted its mask mandate on March 1.

Click to play video: 'City of Calgary mask bylaw to end when provincial health measures are lifted'
City of Calgary mask bylaw to end when provincial health measures are lifted

The Opposition called the UCP government’s amendments “a direct attack on local democracy.”

Joe Ceci, the NDP’s municipal affairs critic, said last year, the province abdicated responsibility for health rules and encouraged municipalities to implement local health restrictions.

“Today, Premier (Jason) Kenney and the UCP are directly contradicting themselves and taking that power away from municipalities,” he said.

“For a government that claims it’s a grassroots party… he’s launching a direct attack on local democracy.

“It’s another example that this government will reach in, without any negotiation… will decide what they want to do.”

Ceci said he was a city councillor for 15 years and remembers Municipal Government Act negotiations with the province taking a long time.

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“This premier is going in, surgically inserting something he wants, and getting out.”

McIver said a year and a half ago, officials had much less experience with COVID-19 and the vaccination rate was much lower than it is now. He said the situation “truly has changed.”

— with a file from The Canadian Press

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