Masks are not mandatory by law anywhere in Strathmore, but town council has made the first step towards establishing a face covering bylaw that could be enacted if necessary.
Town council passed first reading of a proposed face covering bylaw during its regular meeting on Sept. 16. The motion passed 4-3, with Mayor Pat Fule, Deputy Mayor Denise Peterson, and Councillors Bob Sobol and Melanie Corbiell voting in support, while Councillors Lorraine Bauer, Tari Cockx and Jason Montgomery voting in opposition.
The World Health Organization, Chief Public Health Officer for Canada and the Chief Medical Officer of Health for Alberta have stated face coverings reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19 in situations where physical distancing may not be possible.
The town’s procedure bylaw requires that every proposed bylaw requires three separate and distinct readings before coming into law. Thus, to come into effect, the bylaw would have to be brought back to council for second and third readings and passed through respective votes by council (with third reading requiring unanimous consent).
“It’s a pending thing; it’s there for us, should we need to enact it quickly based on the cases in town,” said Fule during the meeting. “I just want to reassure the public that’s basically all we’re doing here tonight – to get something set up should the need arise.”
The bylaw will return to the council’s committee of the whole meeting to receive additional research and information, said Geoff Person, Town of Strathmore communications strategist.
Passing a face covering bylaw is within the town’s authority. Under the provincial Municipal Government Act, a town council may pass bylaws respecting the safety, health and welfare of people and the protection of people and property, people in, on or near a public place or place that is open to the public, and businesses or business activities.
If enacted, the bylaw would require the wearing of face coverings in indoor public premises and vehicles (e.g. taxis, etc.), unless people are separated from each other by an installed screen, shield or other barrier. Face coverings are defined as a mask or other face covering that covers the mouth, nose and chin, creating a barrier to the transmission of infectious respiratory droplets. Anyone found not wearing a mask or covering in a public place or vehicle would be subject to a $100 fine.
There would be exceptions to this rule, however. Children under two years of age, those with medical conditions or disabilities limiting their ability to wear a mask, those unable to use a mask safely without assistance, and those who are providing care to a person with a disability where a facemask could impede care provision would all be exempt. Also, people engaging in an athletic or fitness activity, or who have temporarily removed their mask to provide or receive a service would also be exempt.
Furthermore, the mask requirement would not be in effect for establishments, such as schools or businesses, already with face covering measures in place through provincial guidelines, corporate requirements or provincial professional bodies, explained Trent West, Strathmore’s director of emergency management and fire chief.
“Many businesses have provincial guidelines that they’re working under, so we’re not really worried about them,” said West. “It’s the ones that don’t really have anything or need some support; this is some formalized support.”
The bylaw would also require employers, operators or proprietors to prominently display a sign in a location visible upon entry to indoor public premises or vehicles. Failure to display signage would result in a $200 penalty.
However, upon conviction of either offence, the bylaw provides for the chance of a greater fine, if the circumstances “indicate a marked endangerment or increased risk of endangering public health.”
By passing first reading of the bylaw now, the town can move quickly if there is another wave of COVID-19, said Doug Lagore, the town’s acting chief administrative officer.
But it also gives residents and business operators a chance to review what is being proposed, said West. “We have the opportunity after first reading to have those formal conversations with the Chamber of Commerce and get their feelings about things and talk to the executive director and other individuals in the community.”
A public hearing is not required for any bylaw other than land use bylaws, explained Lagore. However, council could still pursue other forms of public input, such as surveys or letters, he said. Bauer subsequently made a motion that passed to direct administration to look into ways of engaging the public in consultation of the first reading of the face covering bylaw.
The passing of first reading does not necessarily mean the bylaw will be enacted, said West. “I’m hoping that we never have to have second and third reading, and everybody continues to do the job that they’ve done.”
Montgomery proposed an amendment to make the bylaw such that businesses could essentially opt-in to a mask requirement by displaying mask requirement signage (the bylaw, if the amendment carried, would apply to only businesses that choose to put up signs stating a requirement for masks).
Lagore said that advice from the town’s legal department would be required as to how to draft this proposed amendment. “I want to make sure that we word it properly before you vote on that, because if we don’t do it right, it could neutralize the whole bylaw,” he said. Council then made a motion that passed directing administration to seek legal opinion as to how to word the proposed amendment.
This amendment could negate the intent of the bylaw, said Joni McNeely, a local physician.
“A public health measure is only efficient if it’s widespread and addresses all the different levels of the population,” she said. “By having a pick-and-choose situation, then it’s really going to minimize the effectiveness.”
As the virus has the potential to spread rapidly and increase exponentially, officials have to act quickly to an outbreak. Mandating masks for indoor public spaces is one effective option by which to respond, said McNeely. “I totally agree with the town. They’re getting their ducks in a row and preparing, because there’s not going to be a lot of time to act, debate and plan.”
Sean Feagan, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Strathmore Times