A photo shared on social media by Alberta's justice minister has sparked outrage and two official complaints for allegedly violating the province's COVID-19 public health orders related to mask use in indoor work places.
A public health order issued by Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta's chief medical officer of health, on Dec. 8 requires mandatory mask use in all indoor workplaces and facilities outside the home. It applies to all employees and includes any location where employees are present in person. An employee would be exempt if they are working alone in an office, in a safely distanced cubicle or if a barrier is in place.
The original photo shared by Justice Minister Kaycee Madu shows him, Premier Jason Kenney and Municipal Affairs Minister Tracy Allard sitting around a board table without face masks during a virtual town hall on Wednesday.
Hinshaw and Vieri Berretti, one of the meeting's organizers, are also seated around the table and both are wearing masks.
The premier's office later released a photo from another angle in which Kenney and his ministers appear to be sitting further apart than from the original photo's perspective.
Can remove mask when speaking, when distanced: Hinshaw
Hinshaw was asked about the event at her daily news conference Thursday. However, she didn't answer whether she asked everyone at the meeting to wear a mask.
Albertans must wear masks while in indoor public places or workplaces, Hinshaw said, unless a series of exemptions or conditions are met.
"That rule [the exception to wearing a face covering in indoor work places] was set to facilitate people temporarily removing a mask perhaps when they are speaking, making sure they are distanced from all others."
She said she prefers to wear her mask in those settings.
A spokesperson for the premier said Kenney and the two ministers were actively speaking during the virtual townhall meeting with community groups.
"Masks were removed while speaking, just as is done during a press conference," said the spokesperson in an email. "All participants were properly spaced, as per guidelines."
A statement from Madu's press secretary was the same as the one from the premier's office. Minister Allard's office has not responded.
Kenney's United Conservative Party government has faced repeated criticism from those who felt it was too quick to ease restrictions after a crackdown when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in the spring and, as caseloads soared in the fall, for being too slow and to limited in enacting tougher restrictions. Instead, the government resisted calls in November for a partial lockdown and emphasized personal responsibility.
However, as the province's total COVID-19 cases and daily new case counts continued to soar, often outstripping those in far more populated provinces, the Kenney government on Dec. 8 ordered the closure of all casinos and gyms, banned dine-in service at restaurants and bars, banned all outdoor and indoor social gatherings, imposed mandatory work-from-home measures and imposed a mandatory provincewide mask requirement.
On Thursday, Alberta recorded 30 COVID-19 deaths Thursday, the highest number ever reported on a single day. As of Thursday, the province's COVID death toll had climbed to 790, with 1,571 new cases reported and 19,865 active cases. There were 763 people in hospital, including 138 in intensive care.
2 formal complaints filed
The photo sparked outrage on social media with nearly 300 comments, many critical of the three for not wearing face coverings.
At least two formal complaints have been filed with Alberta Health Services, alleging the gathering is a violation under the Public Health Act and the orders issued by Hinshaw on Dec. 8.
One of the complaints was filed by associate professor Anna-Maria Hubert at the University of Calgary's faculty of law. She declined a request for an interview. However, she tweeted "complaint submitted" with a screen shot of the link to file complaints with Alberta Health Services.
The other complaint was filed by an Edmonton woman who said people have to stand up to the government for not following through on its own rules.
The CBC has agreed not to use her name because she fears repercussions for her husband, who is a senior manager with the government.
"I believe also that this government should be leading by example," she said.
Issue revolves around definition of 'workstation'
Associate professor Lorian Hardcastle, also in the faculty of law at the University of Calgary, says the second government photo shows more spacing between Kenney and Madu.
However, the issue relates to how the chief medical officer of health defines individual work spaces.
"I think under any reasonable interpretation of the public health orders, a workstation is its own sort of singular place where one person sits, like a cubicle or like a desk, and not a table," she said.
"The public health order doesn't define that word 'workstation,' it merely says that this masking requirement doesn't apply to people who are alone at workstations and separated by at least two metres."
Decision to post photo just as 'problematic,' critics say
Rachel Notley, the leader of the NDP and the Official Opposition, said she can't speak to whether there's the required distancing between the premier and his minister because of the different camera angles. However, she questions the justice minister's decision to tweet the photo.
"For the justice minister to post that picture is problematic because we are asking Albertans to make a lot of sacrifices, and so this government needs to show that they are doing that as well," she said.
"I would urge them to change the kinds of pictures they are posting to show leadership on the issue, and, of course, I would once again urge all Albertans to follow the rules and wear masks where required."
Mount Royal University political scientist Duane Bratt agrees the justice minister's decision to post the photo was ill-advised.
"It's not a gotcha moment. It was sent out by the Government of Alberta," he said.
"You see ministers, including the premier, not wearing a mask, but then you also see Deena Hinshaw wearing a mask. Does she just not feel comfortable telling the other people to wear a mask?"
"The fact that the government sent it out itself, not realizing it, that's just as problematic as them not wearing a mask to begin with."
Bryan Labby is an enterprise reporter with CBC Calgary. If you have a good story idea or tip, you can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @CBCBryan.