Edmonton is adding exemptions to its masking bylaw for religious gatherings and performance activities, along with giving the city manager powers to amend the municipal mask mandate until a new council is sworn in.
In a special meeting Friday, council voted unanimously to amend its masking rules to more closely align with provincial guidelines announced last week, but with some more stringent caveats.
Actors and musicians will no longer need to mask on stage, providing they are either behind a barrier or distanced from their audience by at least six feet.
The amended bylaw will also exempt people directly involved in religious ceremonies, such as faith leaders, members of a wedding party or performing musicians.
These individuals must also remain distanced or separated by a barrier; other attendees will be required to wear a face covering, the amended bylaw states.
Mayor Don Iveson said the "minor tweaks"are based on feedback the city had received from performance venues.
"There was a bit of coverage of our discussion the other day that might have left people with the impression that the city [was] weakening its face-covering bylaw. And I really don't see it that way," Iveson told the council meeting.
"I think we're tuning it to the practical realities of feedback that we received from the performing arts community, which has been decimated by this pandemic."
The city had not received any formal concerns from faith organizations but Iveson said religious leaders in the city could be "trusted" to respect the mandate.
"The overall message here is, err on the side of caution," Iveson said. "The overall message is not restriction for the sake of restriction."
Under the provincial masking rules, there are broad exemptions for performance activities and attendees at a place of worship.
The city bylaw, which came into effect last Friday and is set to expire on Dec. 31, included exceptions for certain scenarios, such as when on an exercise machine or seated at a restaurant table, but nothing for the performance industry or religious institutions.
New powers for city manager
The bylaw amendments have also authorized Andre Corbould, the city manager, to grant further exemptions to the mask mandate as long as they do not conflict with the provincial order.
Corbould will have this authority until the new city council is sworn in on Nov. 15.
Giving him the power to alter the bylaw without the need to recall council is an unusual but necessary measure to ensure the city can respond quickly to evolving pandemic protocols, Corbould said.
He said he would only use his new authority under "exceptional circumstances."
For instance, Corbould said, if the province decided to introduce vaccine passports, the city might need to make rapid changes to its masking rules.
"I appreciate that this is not our standard approach to making bylaws but these are not standard times," he said.
Legally, council has jurisdiction to impose stricter requirements than those contained in the provincial order but it cannot allow exemptions that have not been granted by the province.
Edmonton city council voted on Aug. 3 to extend and fortify its masking bylaw, requiring residents to wear face coverings in all public indoor spaces, and extending masking requirements for public transit, taxis and ride-sharing vehicles.
New case thresholds were also attached to the bylaw. It will now deactivate if cases of COVID-19 fall below 100 per 100,000 population for 10 straight days.
Edmonton remains a hot spot for COVID-19 cases as Alberta contends with a surging fourth wave. As of Thursday, 4,783 active cases had been identified in the Edmonton health zone.
Coun. Aaron Paquette said he had concerns about the message the exemptions could send.
"I'm going to support this, but I have some very serious concerns about governments backtracking when we're literally in the midst of the fourth wave. So whatever we do, please proceed cautiously."