By Tim Kalinowski
Alta Newspaper Group – Lethbridge
After three hours of debate during a public meeting and various amendments introduced by city council members, the City of Lethbridge is now requiring all members of the public and all employees accessing City-owned facilities to wear masks while on the premises.
The move comes in response to a recent worrying spike in COVID-19 cases in the city and two local deaths due to the disease.
The policy will be phased in gradually as each facility comes up with a way to do that practically. This includes all City-owned recreation facilities and gathering spaces managed by outside partner agencies. It will also apply to City parks and outdoor recreation spaces where physical distancing is not possible.
As part of the motion, city council also empowered the city manager to begin the process of drafting a bylaw which would require mandatory mask use throughout the entire city when visiting stores or other public spaces which would be enacted at a later time.
A second related motion makes masks mandatory on all City buses as of Aug. 4.
Mayor Chris Spearman co-sponsored the motions, and thanked council for showing leadership in protecting the health and safety of citizens.
“I think we are going to encourage people to wear them for everybody’s interest in terms of mutual health, protecting others, and making sure our businesses don’t suffer from a second wave,” he said. “Going forward into the next two weeks is critical. You have heard the medical officer of health provincially say what we’re seeing in terms of rising numbers now is due to activities that happened two weeks ago, and we want to make sure the City of Lethbridge is ready five weeks from now when kids go back to school, and people are wanting to go back to work, we’re doing everything we possibly can as a community to make sure that we’re not assisting with the spread of the COVID-19 virus and doing everything we can to suppress it in this city.”
One controversial amendment introduced by Deputy Mayor Jeffrey Coffman, which passed by a close vote of 5-4, authorized the mayor to write a letter to the Medical Office of Health-South Zone asking AHS South Zone to be empowered as the authority to make the determination on mandatory mask use in this region and not the provincial Chief Medical Officer of Health Deena Hinshaw; given the Kenney government’s reluctance to impose a province-wide mandatory mask order.
Spearman acknowledged the political dimension of this amendment, but denied it represented a rift between the province and City on the best public health response to COVID-19. He said the premier had made it clear it was up to municipalities to decide if and when to bring in mandatory mask orders based on their own circumstances.
“We are listening to the Chief Medical Officer of Health who is encouraging the use of masks as much as possible,” he explained. “In the absence of political leadership from the province, we have to do it locally. The premier has said it is up to municipalities to do it so we have taken those first steps ourselves in the City of Lethbridge.”
“I wouldn’t describe it as a rift, but the province has said it is not universal across the province because there are some municipalities with zero cases, some that have seen no rise. That has not been our experience (in the Lethbridge region).”