Strathmore councillors vote against masking bylaw, for now

The Town of Strathmore has tried and failed to mandate face coverings in public spaces, leaving some frustrated.

The bylaw would have been activated when the town hit a threshold of COVID-19 cases, making masking mandatory only when the town is under a "watch" or "enhanced" state, as determined by provincial figures.

But the bylaw failed in a vote with four councillors against and three in favour.

In her presentation, Coun. Lorraine Bauer said the government has had ample time to mandate masks across Alberta but, instead, has passed that responsibility on to municipalities.

"I do not feel qualified as a politician to make decisions that affect an individual's health or take away their right to choose what's best for them," Bauer said. "I cannot agree with a bylaw where the focus will be on virtue signaling and disregarding an individual's right to choose."

In a Facebook post following the meeting, Bauer wrote the bylaw was not clear on how it would be enforced — among other concerns. She clarified that she is not against wearing a mask to prevent the spread of COVID-19 but is against a bylaw that does not address the needs of the community.

Coun. Bob Sobol said similar to how residents prepare for floods or a big storm, COVID-19 is at the door, and it would be irresponsible not to take action.

"We're a community that is surrounded by other communities in areas that are high in case numbers," Strathmore Mayor Pat Fule said. "Fortunately, Strathmore has been able to keep the cases low, but they have started to creep up and we were put into an enhanced status by the province. So that's where the impetus came to try to bring in that face-covering bylaw, which was defeated."

Helen Pike/CBC
Helen Pike/CBC

Fule told CBC News the bylaw failed because some felt, as it was written, the law would be an overreach on personal freedoms and business owners' autonomy.

Procedurally, Fule said, the bylaw can return for council's consideration, but only if those who voted against it want to explore the bylaw again.

'Temporary setback'

Fule is hopeful that council can agree on a face-covering bylaw soon.

"Maybe it's just a temporary setback," Fule said. "Maybe if the bylaw is tweaked and re-worked, that maybe more of us can get on board with it. Time will tell."

Dr. David Piesas, medical director for the Calgary Rural Primary Care Network, is one of 15 doctors who signed a letter in support of a mandatory masking bylaw. He said the decision came as a surprise.

'Should be provincial rule'

"The obvious benefits of mandating masking in public buildings in public places has been shown worldwide to be effective," Piesas said. "I'm a little bit puzzled as to why some of our councillors here in Strathmore would think otherwise."

Piesas said this type of public health decision shouldn't be left to municipalities.

"I think it should be a provincial rule," Piesas said. "Then it'll take the onus away from the council having to make these local decisions."

Business owner eager for mandate

Daniel Wiewel owns MaxSPL Music, which sells musical instruments and offers lessons in town. He was hoping for a masking mandate to take the decision out of his hands. As it stands, he has decided to require masks in his shop.

"Now it falls on businesses to say what people can or can't do inside their walls.… I'm not a doctor, I shouldn't be making this decision for the people who walk through the door," Wiewel said.

Helen Pike/CBC
Helen Pike/CBC

He added wearing a mask in the town has, at times, felt contentious. He's been sworn at for donning a face covering.

"The loudest voices are kind of drowning everybody else out," Wiewel said. "If some of the councillors feel that that legislation was flawed and needs to be altered, by all means. But I do hope that it just gets the alterations it needs so that we can all have some clarity."