This story was updated Sept. 3, 2021 to reflect the province's announcement of a province-wide mandatory mask mandate.
Sturgeon County council has kicked a vote on restoring its mask bylaw down the road two weeks in hopes the province will act on masks for them — a move a former county mayor says is a big mistake.
County council voted 4-3 in favour of a motion from Coun. Patrick Tighe to postpone first reading of a revised mandatory face covering bylaw until Sept. 14. Councillors Tighe, Wayne Bokenfohr, Neal Comeau, and Dan Derouin were in support, while Mayor Alanna Hnatiw and councillors Kristin Toms and Karen Shaw were opposed.
The bylaw was the subject of the Sept. 2 special council meeting, which had been called in response to a recent surge in active COVID-19 cases.
On Sept. 3, the provincial government announced an Alberta-wide mandatory mask mandate for all indoor public areas took effect on Sept. 4.
There were 108 active cases in the county as of Sept. 1 — about 14 times more than there were about a month before, and the most since April 30. The county also had the third highest number of cases per 100,000 people in the metro Edmonton region with 386.7, coming in behind Beaumont (418) and Leduc County (433.1)
“We are right at the top from a comparative perspective right across the region,” said Scott MacDougall, the county’s chief operations officer.
MacDougall also noted that the county lagged the province on vaccinations, with just 64 to 66 per cent of the county’s eligible population (those 12 and older) fully immunized against COVID compared to the provincial average of 70.
Speaking via videoconference, Edmonton Zone Medical Officer of Health Dr. Chris Sikora said Alberta’s fourth wave of COVID-19 infections was driven by the more infectious Delta variant, with infections amongst the unvaccinated. Masks blocked the droplets that spread the virus, and, in addition to vaccines and handwashing, were part of a package of measures meant to stop transmission and keep people out of hospital.
“There is practically no risk to being masked,” he said, noting how surgeons and runners wore them for hours without harm.
“It’s effective, it’s easy, it’s safe, and it helps reduce transmission.”
Sikora noted that the health-care system is “getting strained” due to rising hospitalizations related to COVID-19, with doctors seeing more and more young people hospitalized. Around five to 15 per cent of patients who recovered from COVID were also showing persistent health problems such as coughs or headaches long afterwards — a phenomenon researchers have dubbed “long COVID.”
MacDougall proposed reinstating a revised version of the county’s mandatory mask bylaw, which expired Dec. 31.
The revised bylaw would apply to everyone two and up instead of 10 and up, which is in line with the province’s masking requirements for public transit. Instead of turning on and off based on the county entering “watch” status, the bylaw is now based on active cases per 100,000. Masks would be mandatory indoors and in enclosed spaces when cases exceeded 100/100,000, and optional once the county spent 10 consecutive days under that threshold.
Council heard that this was the same threshold used by the City of Edmonton (which restored its mask mandate on Aug. 30) and almost five times higher than the case rate the county had when it first mandated masks back in August 2020.
The revised bylaw would also deactivate should the province bring in its own mask mandate.
Mayor Alanna Hnatiw noted that regional mayors had talked the previous day in an attempt to co-ordinate regional mask mandates, and said she wished the province would take a regional, data-driven approach to masks.
While health might be the province’s jurisdiction, Hnatiw said it is a municipal council’s job to create safe communities. Municipalities build roads and hire peace officers — both areas of federal and provincial responsibility — yet no one ever accuses them of overstepping their bounds.
Hnatiw noted that it was rural residents who trailed the province when it came to vaccination rates, and those residents became problems for cities when they were hospitalized with COVID. Masks also had little impact on personal freedoms in rural settings.
“There’s no shortage of (COVID-19) data,” Hnatiw said.
“There’s a shortage of willingness to make decisions that are difficult.”
Even if it should be up to the province to act on masks, they had not, so the county should, Toms said.
“We have to make sure our people are safe,” she said, questioning how many additional cases the county would see by delaying action until Sept. 14.
(Case trends in the county for August suggest it would have about 135 active cases by Sept. 14, a very rough estimate by The Gazette suggests, which would be a pandemic record for the county.)
Nah, say councillors
Tighe called for a delay on the vote.
“There is inherent risk to living on this planet every single day,” he said, and those who feel they should exercise more caution should do so.
Bokenfohr supported the delay, saying that the county should wait for the province to act on masks. He also urged residents to mask up, noting that widespread mask use helped basically eliminate influenza last year.
“If you want to protect yourself and your children, wear a mask.”
Bokenfohr also suggested the province consider allocating intensive care beds based on a patient’s COVID vaccination status.
“It’s a choice. If they’re choosing not to be vaccinated, maybe they’re choosing to be in the back of the line for priorities.”
Comeau blasted Bokenfohr for this suggestion, saying it would create a two-tiered society. He said residents he spoke with questioned if COVID health measures would ever end, and noted that many more people died from cancer last year than from COVID.
“We’re calling COVID a pandemic, yet what are we calling cancer?”
Derouin backed a delay to the vote, saying council could do more to educate residents about COVID.
Big mistake, says Flynn
Hnatiw shook her head at Derouin’s remarks, saying, “I thought we were getting educated (on COVID) in the last year-and-a-half, so good luck with a friggin’ miracle in the next 12 days.”
Hnatiw said she hoped councillors would “step out of any echo chambers they might be occupying” so they might have an informed debate on masks on Sept. 14.
Former county mayor Tom Flynn, who was in the audience, said he was disappointed by council’s decision.
“There was no good reason for delaying it,” he said, noting how the law would kick out if the province brought in its own mask rules.
“It is a large mistake.”
Flynn said Sturgeon County now stands out in the Edmonton region as a government that will not protect its residents when it can.
“If one person dies or gets seriously sick because we didn’t step forward [with this law] and didn’t put the right things in place, [responsibility] has to land on the shoulders of those who voted to delay.”