By COLLIN GALLANT on December 3, 2020.
A bylaw requiring masks to be worn in public buildings, businesses, buses and taxis will be in effect at midnight tonight, following a special meeting of council held Wednesday.
Hatters face fines of $50 for not complying with the measure that the majority of council said was an important piece of bringing down rising numbers of local COVID-19 cases.
The measure, approved by a 6-3 vote, will expire in 90 days on March 4, due to the only proposed change during a 45-minute meeting debate.
Slightly fewer than 50 residents – capacity under provincial health restrictions – generally opposed to the measure packed one side of the viewing gallery.
Coun. Robert Dumanowski said the bylaw asked Hatters to suffer “minor inconvenience” of wearing a mask as “a simple act of decency and kindness.”
“It’s simple, it’s not political,” he said in a statement. “To ignore overwhelming scientific advice would be reprehensible … It protects the good of everyone, not the least of which are our most vulnerable.”
Voting in favour were Couns. Dumanowski, Julie Friesen, Darren Hirsch, Jamie McIntosh, Phil Turnbull and Brian Varga.
Nay votes were registered by Mayor Ted Clugston, and Couns. Kris Samraj and Jim Turner, with Clugston asking members not to block a separate vote to allow the bylaw to proceed to a final vote.
Clugston said following the meeting that since council supported he bylaw, he would too, but was unconvinced it would be effective.
Medicine Hat becomes the 20th substantial population centre in Alberta to adopt a local mask bylaw, and debate comes after pressure from councillors for Clugston to call a special meeting rather than debating the issue on Dec. 7 as scheduled.
Clugston has often said he was proud Medicine Hat hadn’t passed a bylaw this summer while cases remained low, and reiterated that sentiment to reporters.
“I thought it was an indicative sign that I thought (Medicine Hat) was doing well,” he said.
“I watched Medicine Hat doing well without it (a bylaw) and compliance happen without it, and I kind of wanted to see how it would have played out.
“Now we’re the same (with rising case numbers) as everyone else, and we’ll see what happens going forward.”
In voting no, Turner said he was unconvinced by medical advice and that government shouldn’t infringe on personal freedoms.
“If someone could show me undisputed evidence that masks stop the spread I would probably support it,” he said.
“We’ll have an answer in three months, either with herd immunity or a vaccine. I honestly believe we’d be closer to herd immunity without (the spring lockdown).
“(Now) we should protect the vulnerable and let other people live their lives.”
Turnbull said nine other provinces have mask mandates and wearing one shows consideration for others.
“We should be doing everything we can,” he said. “There are many terrible things we’ll remember about this year. One thing I’d like to remember is how we came together as a city.”
In voting no, Samraj said mask use is one of several important part of stopping the spread, but the bylaw would be difficult to enforce.
“There are easier ways to get compliance,” he said, adding that “difficult” discussions about maintaining all health measures are needed.
“For the time being the province hasn’t determined that masks are necessary … though a lot of people are second guessing the province,” he said.
Brian Varga told the News that the issue has created the most feedback for councillors of any issue in his seven years on council.
“We make decisions based on evidence, and when you get doctors calling you, you take it seriously,” he said.
“It (mask-use) might not be 100 per cent, but it’s better than zero.”
Hirsch also didn’t raise any points before voting in favour, but had said that he was prepared to vote in favour if voluntary calls didn’t halt rising numbers.
Similarly, McIntosh did not speak during the debate, but had called for a debate on masking provisions in mid-November, and had pushed for a special meeting after new provincial mask requirements only covered Calgary and Edmonton.
Friesen said the provincial order for the major urban centres gave rural areas and smaller cities “a false sense of security.”
“It has the potential to go beyond our community,” she said, reading excerpts of letters she received stating worker’s shouldn’t have to choose between facing the risk of infection at work or quitting a job.
A mask bylaw would “install confidence and protect public safety.”
“Wearing a mask? I’m asthmatic myself, and it is tough.”