By COLLIN GALLANT on November 25, 2020.
A local mask bylaw in Medicine Hat may be debated before an early December deadline set by councillors to see whether voluntary measures would turn back rising cases of COVID-19.
That could come at a special session of city council, if council members desire, said Mayor Ted Clugston on Tuesday after Premier Jason Kenney announced a raft of new measures late Tuesday afternoon to combat rising figures across Alberta.
That includes a mask mandate in the two largest cities – where case totals are highest, but also where municipal mask bylaws are already in place – in a series of “targeted” measures to preserve hospital capacity.
But a provincewide mask regulation wasn’t announced – something that local elected officials said they would be looking for in the afternoon update.
“The premier is in a very difficult position, walking a tightrope between saving lives and livelihoods,” Clugston said. “But we would have preferred an all or nothing approach (on masks).”
Coun. Jamie McIntosh pushed the issue during council’s last meeting on Nov. 16, following a presentation from emergency management director Merrick Brown.
He said Tuesday that a provincewide mask mandate would be better received by the public, including many skeptics, and generally be more clear and easier to enforce.
“Much more than if it comes from a municipal councillor who certainly wasn’t elected to enforce health orders,” said McIntosh.
“But, we are elected to protect the citizens of Medicine Hat and that’s what we should be prepared to do.”
Council members discussed the COVID situation on Monday among other topics during a special strategy session, the News has confirmed.
Several sources say there is “significant debate” going on about the need for a local bylaw and how it might be enforced.
Procedurally, such a bylaw could be passed at a special meeting of council, which would be needed to be advertised widely, before legislation could be legally passed.
Councillors are also hearing from pro and con factions in the community, one member said, but the time frame is becoming an issue.
“My feeling is that if we’re going to do something it will be before Dec. 7,” said Coun. Phil Turnbull, speaking before the province’s announcement.
“It’s put Medicine Hat in an extremely difficult position,” said Clugston, adding that mask mandates are in place across nine provinces, in Calgary, Edmonton and 17 other municipalities in Alberta.
“Medicine Hat is now an outlier in the entire country.”
Last week council supported a public awareness campaign for citizens to heed largely voluntary calls from the province that again asked Hatters to limit contacts, practice good hygiene and socially distance.
Since Nov. 13, the number of active cases in Medicine Hat city region has tripled from 34 to 102 on Tuesday, a period of 10 days.
Premier Jason Kenney on Tuesday announced stiffer rules and potential fines along with changes to the school schedule, a complete ban on private in-home gatherings and new rules for businesses, among other measures.
The province has been hesitant to take a strong statement on masks, but Kenney said their use is now mandatory in Calgary and Edmonton regions.
“They (masks) are not a silver bullet, but they are a layer of protection,” said Kenney.
Local councillors debated mask effectiveness on Nov. 16.
Clugston said he was still examining case studies and Coun. Jim Turner also said he wasn’t sure about their effectiveness.
Both men said that everything should be done to keep businesses from closing or facing harsher restrictions.
Coun. Kris Samraj, who called for the information campaign, also told the News he is struggling with questions about the effectiveness of the bylaw.
If spread is occurring in private gatherings, the city has little ability to regulate it, he argued.
Kenney said “targeted” new measures were “balanced” to avoid a “crushing lockdown.”
Included are provincewide restrictions on all indoor social gatherings, and a limit of 10 people for outdoor gatherings, and lower capacity rules for funerals and religious worship. The province will examine giving peace officers authority to level fines.
A classification for retail and all businesses will be released Friday allowing either in-person or by-appointment-only service.