Alberta mayors say they need leadership from province as masking decisions deferred to municipalities

As COVID-19 infection rates rise again in Alberta, mayors of some municipalities are wrestling with the decision to implement another mask mandate — and say they need more leadership from the provincial government on the matter.

Alberta mandated masking in public indoor settings until July 1, when the health measure was widely lifted under Stage 3 of its “Open for Summer” plan.

It took effect two weeks after 70 per cent of eligible Albertans had received one dose of COVID vaccine and hospitalizations had declined.

Stage 3 also saw the responsibility of a mandate deferred to municipalities and businesses that can now “set their own masking requirements, such as requiring staff and/or customers to wear masks inside their place of business.”

However, Alberta’s vaccination rates have flattened while case numbers have again steadily increased in recent weeks. On Thursday, the province announced its highest daily tally in months as 1,112 new cases were reported. 

And this time, municipalities are without a sweeping provincial rule to guide them on masking — an issue that Okotoks acting deputy mayor Florence Christophers says remains heavily contentious.

“It is as polemical, as polarized, as it was when we first brought in the bylaws to make masks mandatory in Okotoks,” Christophers told the Calgary Eyeopener on Friday.

She wants the province to make the decision itself, and while consulting and communicating about the medical data it has access to that municipalities don’t.

“It puts pressure on municipalities to get into conversations around the science and medicine and health, and I think it’s an unfair pressure,” Christophers said.

‘We need the leadership from the premier’

Christophers isn’t the only Alberta mayor hoping for more support and direction from the province.

Lethbridge’s Chris Spearman said the province has been fairly clear that it doesn’t intend to mandate masks or vaccine passports.

And so the city’s chamber of commerce is now doing its own survey of local businesses to get a sense of what is desired.

But he said a mandate from the City of Lethbridge alone will be difficult to enforce, and is likely to put staff and employees in uncomfortable situations.

Between 60 and 80 people made their way into Lethbridge city council chambers to voice their objection to the city’s masking bylaw last September. (Rob Miyashiro/Twitter)

“We’ll be putting people on the front lines in a difficult, difficult spot, because there are people — and I would say it’s about a third of the population — who are strongly opposed to vaccines and strongly opposed to masking,” Spearman said.

Spearman believes that friction would be somewhat dissipated if a provincial mandate were in place.

“We need the leadership from the premier and from the ministry of health. They need to demonstrate that when it comes to health, the best interests of the public … need to be served,” Spearman said. 

“This whole wall of silence is not doing anybody any favours, and they know that municipalities are in a difficult situation.”

‘Put the pressure on them’

Alberta is poised to lift virtually all of its remaining health measures, including masking orders in publicly accessible transit, taxis, school buses and ride-shares, on Sept. 27.

But when asked what the mayors would like to see for their municipalities, Spearman said he would want a mask mandate in Lethbridge again — and will likely reintroduce the issue at council for debate.

“We don’t want to be back where we were in April, where we were the jurisdiction that had the highest rates of COVID in North America. We want to make sure that we keep our province and our city safe,” Spearman said.

As for Okotoks, Christophers said the town south of Calgary could potentially revisit a mandate, though she knows the majority of the community is opposed to it.

But she maintains the decision should not fall to local councils.

“It’s the province’s job,” she said.

“Put the pressure on them to keep an eye on the numbers, and to make responsible decisions around provincewide health mandating.”

CBC News requested comment from the offices of Premier Jason Kenney and Health Minister Tyler Shandro but has yet to receive a response.

However, a Thursday email from Premier Jason Kenney’s office said the premier is on holidays until next week.

With files from the Calgary Eyeopener.

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