By Nikki Jamieson
Sunny South News
Coaldale town council ended up defeating a face mask bylaw for the third time this year.
Council had discussed implementing a potential mask bylaw over the course of two special council meetings on Dec. 2 and 3.
While council had previously discussed mask bylaws during Sept. 14, Oct. 13 – where they directed the Emergency Advisory Committee to present recommendations – and Oct. 26 council meeting, they had ultimately rejected it during the Sept. 14 and Oct. 26.
Since then, however, COVID-19 cases have continued to rise, with more than 17,000 active cases reported in the province lsat Friday. The Coaldale Emergency Management Agency has worked to ensure public awareness has been created through various methods such as advertising, social media, letters to businesses and signs.
At the Dec. 2 meeting, two bylaws were considered – one with the ability to conduct education and enforcement should there be a need, and the other which excludes the enforcement piece and is based on similar bylaws from neighbouring municipalities. Council passed the first and second readings of Bylaw 796-R-12-20 in split votes. Bylaw 796-R-12-20 is a bylaw for education only, and does not have an enforcement piece.
Throughout both meetings, members of council reported hearing from or receiving a lot of correspondence from residents covering all sides of the issue.
Returning to the matter at a special Dec. 3 council meeting, CAO Kalen Hastings noted that based on feedback from council at the Dec. 2 special meeting, the following details needed to be discussed by council prior to the passing of the third and final reading of the bylaw: Having a commencement date of Dec. 7, 2020, to allow business owners and residents time to acquire the necessary PPE.
That the expiration date be amended to Jan. 19, 2021, to accommodate that the first meeting in the new year for Council is on Jan. 18, 2021, should council wish to extend the date. The expiration date in the original draft of the bylaw was Dec. 31.
Amend the bylaw to reflect that children under the age of 10 are exempt to wear a mask, as sect. 6.1a currently states an exemption for those under the age of two.
Include a copy of the educational materials as part of the agenda package.
Coun. Bill Chapman asked if the bylaw could cover cases per capita instead of coming into effect at 50 cases in the region, like other municipalities, and asked if a business person was sitting alone in their office, if they would be required to wear a mask under this bylaw.
Responding to the per capita request, Hastings noted that it would require a fairly extensive amendment, and while other communities have done that in their mask bylaws, those also go further into the future. This bylaw is meant to be more short-term, but council could look at amending the bylaw to do so when it expires. Hasting also assured that people alone in offices wouldn’t have to wear a mask under provincial guidelines or this bylaw, but they were if they are in a communal space. Coun. Roger Hohm said he supported the commencement and expiration date recommendations. As for the age, he felt the age of 10 was not the right number, as Palliser Regional School division does not require mask to up to grade 3 students, which he said was “conflicting”, and said he supported amending it to 8-year olds. Coun. Briane Simpson asked what would happen if the province release a mask mandate, which and Mayor Kim Craig Hastings confirmed would take precedent over the town’s bylaw. As for differences between the andante and bylaw, Hastings said it would depend on “what the rule is”, but it would supersede a municipal bylaw. Simpson express concern over what the province is going to do and potential confusion that may arise from it.
Simpson also expressed concerns shared by local businesses, who are already struggling, about whether this is going to fall on them to enforce and be an added expense for them, and asked how they are going to support them.
“My intent on this bylaw was, more or less, a strong, strong endorsement of the citizen’s responsibility to wear masks, and nothing more, nothing less,” said Craig. “We’re recognizing that enforcement is a very big issue, that we don’t want to download that onto businesses or some helpless worker at a small business and have them be our enforcement officer. but merely be a very strong endorsement, that we highly recommend to people, look after one another by wearing masks.”
Criag noted that they have heard from people who have taken all sorts of stances on the issue, and he looks at this as a “compromise”, and not act “draconian or be big brother”. Coun. Jacen Abrey noted it was a difficult decision for council to make, but they want to ensure everyone’s safety, and for him, wearing a face mask is about respect for others, and for them to do their education campaign on it, they need a bylaw to help give it substance, and he is in favour of a face mask bylaw. Coun. Doreen Lloyd said she agreed that the bylaw should be called something else and the recommendations are great. Noting that WHO and the chief medial officers for Canada and Alberta agree that masks help reduce the risk of spreading in circumstances where social distancing isn’t possible, she said in socially distanced settings like the council meeting, they aren’t required. Recent government measures, like the 25 per cent occupancy level in stores, would help with ensuring social distancing.
Craig asked if they reword the bylaw’s title to read “endorsing” rather then “requiring” to wear a face mask, as in his mind, it is in contradiction to their intent.
Abrey made a motion for third reading of the bylaw, with amendments regarding commence date of Dec. 7, expiration date of Jan. 18, 2021, age requirement of eight years, and change in the title of the bylaw to “endorsing”.
Hohm disagreed with the title change as he thought it would make the bylaw ineffective. Craig replied that the bylaw intended is to help launch a stronger message to support face masking, and for what Hohm is suggesting they would need fines and penalties. They could look at adding more teeth to the bylaw in January if they pass it, but Craig’s hope is that they won’t need the bylaw by then. Simpson noted that they would need to go through the bylaw to amend a few of the sections, such as section 5, as well.
Abrey said he wouldn’t support that, and argued that if they start to change the wording to that extent from what is in the bylaw, they might as well not pass it, as section 5 is where all of the meat to the bylaw is. Simpson said then she wouldn’t use the word endorse.
“If we’re getting into the purpose of the bylaw, we may as well stop debating now and not pass third reading and get on with our evenings,” said Abrey. “If the purpose is changed, the intent of the bylaw is gone, so there’s no point in debating any further do we need a face mask bylaw.”
Hastings stressed they were not asking businesses to enforce the bylaw on the town’s behalf or submit evidence to the town of customers not following the bylaw.
“The ultimate authority that business owners have is within the jurisdiction of being a store owner,” said Hastings. “If they want to exercise the choice of asking somebody to leave their store, because they don’t have a face mask on, that’s within their purview, and that’s a choice that they as a business owner get to make.”
Simpson asked then why put a bylaw in place then, as she felt it would just create conflict. Abrey said that businesses have to manage the measures, such as 25 per cent occupancy, that the province mandated, but when they want to do something for public health “we say it’s not fair” to their business owners, but if it is alright when the province does it.
Hohm noted that in places where there’s mandatory mask bylaws like Lethbridge and Calgary, he’s not seeing reports everyday of businesses having to shut down to manage it.
Additionally, the City of Lethbridge hasn’t written a ticket yet.
“They’re just going to do what the province been telling them all along: manage the situation. We’ll keep you open if you manage the situation,” said Hohm. “We got the other choice; we can just leave it wide open, then the next one will be you’re shut down.”
Chapman noted that enforcement is a “partial issue”, noting that for some businesses they need to have enforcement or education to get employees to wear face masks. Simpson replied that the province has penalties for their mandates, and when she is in Lethbridge she has noticed and heard that some stores have hired security because of the mask bylaw, which means an extra employee for the protection of employees because of a mask bylaw that can’t be enforced.
Craig said he now doubted whether the bylaw had good intentions after discussion, and can’t help but think the community will be confused by the bylaw.
Council defeated the motion to pass third reading, as amended, in a split 2-5 vote, with coun. Abrey and Hohm being the sole votes for it.
Hohm asked if administration could look into the possibility of Zoom meetings, so that people don’t have to leave their homes and go out into non-masked areas, which Abrey said he supported.
Council passed a motion to direct administration to investigate holding Zoom meetings in a split 5-2 vote, with coun.(s) Lloyd and Henry Pauls opposed.
Following a question, Hastings said they can accommodate that, they need to look into what platform is best to do it on, and they need some advance notice on how would like to attend that way. Additionally, while under normal circumstances, councillors can’t attend a closed session by virtual means, that restriction under the Municipal Government Act has been temporarily suspended due to the pandemic, although the procedure has changed.