A community wide requirement for face coverings in Hinton was implemented prior to the new Provincial directive regarding COVID-19 that came into effect on Sept. 4.
Provincial COVID-19 cases are trending up, largely in unvaccinated Albertans, with the immediate Hinton area reaching 53 active cases as of Sept. 7. Yellowhead County currently has 168 active cases, and Edson Mayor Kevin Zahara has spoken out about their hospital’s ICU being at full capacity.
While Alberta’s government instituted a province-wide mask mandate on Sept. 4, several Municipalities acted proactively in the absence of provincial leadership relating to the fourth wave of the pandemic. The province has since restricted the food and beverage industry to end liquor sales by 10pm, as well as recommended limited gatherings and working from home.
Hinton’s face coverings bylaw was discussed and given all three readings during a special meeting on Sept. 2. The mask mandate went into effect immediately.
Hinton’s acting CAO, Laura Howarth, noted that the municipal bylaw and the provincial mandate are able to coexist. Under the bylaw, local peace officers have the option to enforce masks and potentially give out fines, while RCMP can do both under just the provincial mandate.
Hinton’s Fire Chief, Mac de Beaudrap, said that enforcement is currently on a complaint basis, and that the Town has received several complaints.
“We’ve gone in and spoken to a couple of businesses, we had one most recently today that we had to go and speak with them because there were not only clients but staff that weren’t wearing masks,” de Beaudrap said on Sept. 7 during the regular council meeting. He noted they are trying to educate and be as lenient as permits, but that the bylaw will be enforced.
Remembering how the Town took action against the risk of the mountain pine beetle and recurring wildfire threats, Coun. Trevor Haas said during the special meeting that this too was a reason for the Town to take action, protect citizens, and secure the local healthcare system.
“How many doctors have to plead with us to get the message across that we are in a very critical state right now. Our hospitals have reached capacity, patients are being intubated and transported to the city. And speaking of being transferred, everytime that ambulance leaves with one intubated patient I’m hearing that two crews are going with them, that’s leaving us in a very precarious spot here in town,” said Coun. JoAnn Race.
She noted that ambulance personnel are burned out and the decision to require masks should not be delayed any further.
Coun. Albert Ostashek voiced his displeasure and disappointment of the provincial government’s inaction, which put municipalities in a position where they feel obligated to protect themselves. Health care is a provincial responsibility, he said.
In response to some residents asking where the municipality is getting their expert health advice, Coun. Ryan Maguhn read a statement received by the Town from Dr. Andrea Rahn, community medical director of the North Zone.
“She said, full heartedly, every physician wants a masking bylaw to be in place. Hinton’s physicians and all of AHS are in favour of this and are dedicated to deliver service. They will back up a decision to implement mandatory masking,” Maguhn read.
Almost a thousand contractors are coming to the community in the next seven days, according to West Fraser correspondence with the Town. This adds even more pressure to Hinton’s healthcare system and the possibility of spreading COVID-19, said Mayor Marcel Michaels.
Michaels pointed out that masks will help prevent another complete lockdown and keep local businesses and schools open.
“Nobody wants more restrictions. That’s a huge factor that I want people to understand. This is for that not to happen,” he said.
The bylaw will be revisited by council at the first council meeting of each month. The previous temporary mandatory face covering bylaw was approved on Nov. 20, 2020 and was repealed on April 8, 2021. Maguhn tried to strike a line from the bylaw that exempts schools and educational facilities from the mask bylaw.
“Essentially the policies brought on with educational facilities strongly recommends the use of masks in many places but doesn’t mandate it. Last time masks were already mandated in schools, not this time,” he noted.
He added that Town councils and school boards don’t have the expertise without outside advice to engage in healthcare concerns and emergencies, but that leadership should be handled at the provincial level. The safety of local kids, who are the one group who aren’t eligible for the vaccine, is non-negotiable, he said.
Since a Town bylaw wouldn’t necessarily supersede the school board’s decisions, council felt consulting the schools directly would be a better option. Instead, the Town will write a letter to the Grande Yellowhead School Division and the Evergreen Catholic Separate School Division informing them of Council’s mask bylaw decision and urging them to consider implementing enhanced mask requirements. Michaels added that this letter is about informing them and building communication.
Council also decided to send a letter to the provincial government requesting implementation of reasonable restrictions to help control the spread of COVID-19. After the province implemented a province-wide mask mandate and new restrictions, Hinton’s council still felt it was important to write a letter to voice their frustrations.
On Sept. 7, Howarth added that the province did not provide municipalities with any indication that new restrictions were to be expected, and that this could have saved the Town a lot of work.
During the special meeting, Council also discussed limiting public gatherings, but no restrictions were put in place around this. Haas did point out that increased COVID-19 cases seem to be coinciding with public gatherings and that there are several large events coming up.
In the meantime, the Oktoberfest Committee decided to postpone Oktoberfest until a suitable later date due to the municipal and provincial COVID-19 mandates.
As of press time, the Autumn Festival and the Rotary Shred-It event in Green Square are both still proceeding on Sept. 11.
Masha Scheele, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Hinton Voice