By Cole Parkinson
With the Municipal District of Taber seeing their COVID numbers continue to rise, a resident has addressed a letter to council requesting a mask bylaw be put in place.
Council was able to read the letter and have a discussion around their desire to implement a bylaw during their regular meeting held on Nov. 24.
“I know there is a lot of concern regarding what measures as a municipality we can take,” said Reeve Merrill Harris.
He also stated he had talked to a local doctor inquiring about whether or not council should explore a mandatory mask bylaw. In response, the doctor stated local physicians are not “in a position to give recommendations to municipalities”.
This discussion was had before the UCP government’s announcement of declaring a state of public health emergency and putting aggressive measures in place to protect the health system and reduce the rising spread of COVID-19 cases.
“I think as a municipality we do need to take a role but today we should be waiting on Premier Kenney to make his announcement before we go forward,” added Coun. Tamara Miyanaga.
She also highlighted the need to continue sharing on their social media accounts why social distancing, masks, and limiting social gatherings should be used during the pandemic.
“The numbers are, to me, frightening. I appreciate the doctor’s comment but other doctors are indicating people shouldn’t be going anywhere,” continued Miyanaga. “As a municipality, we should be responsive. We are seeing other municipalities go into a local state of emergency. We used to feel we are safe here because we are small and we are spread out but when we are the second-highest per capita in the province, what’s going on? And what can we do to do better?”
Other councillors also offered similar concerns around the rising case numbers in the municipality.
“What we are doing right now is not working. It’s pretty apparent that it’s not. I don’t know if we need to have better communication with organizations throughout our community, I don’t know. I don’t know what the answer is but I think it is something that needs to be discussed for sure,” stated Coun. John Turcato.
While more stringent rules within the municipality were certainly a possible route, some on council felt they wouldn’t be any more effective than the provincial recommendations already in place.
“I feel like everybody knows what we are living and the reason we are not having success is because there are people that feel they don’t need to take those measures,” explained Deputy Reeve Jen Crowson.
“I think the more we enforce, the ones that aren’t following aren’t going to want to follow more rules because they already aren’t adhering to guidelines that have been presented. We have to be cautious on what we may or may not do moving forward because there’s also an enforcement side of things. If we are going to recommend or make recommendations or you must and you will, we need the enforcement ability in that as well. I don’t know that we have those resources. I think everybody lets their guard down,” continued Crowson.
“If we were to put a mask bylaw in place, there are already enough loopholes for people not to wear masks in other areas. If you have a certain condition, you don’t have to wear it so I think there will be a lot more people claiming that,” added Coun. Leavitt Howg. “I think it comes down to messaging and promoting messaging from provincial guidelines. And enforcing those measures if we are able to.”
Coun. Brian Brewin asked administration how much work would be needed to get a draft together. Administration explained they would look to borrow from other municipalities who have implemented a mask bylaw. Brewin also touched on the fact some things may need to be done from a municipal level to get numbers under control.
“If we do it, I think we need to do it as an area, as a municipality, as a town. Barnwell, Vauxhall, all one large group because that alleviates the uncertainty,” he said, while also touching on how he felt of the situation on a personal level and from a political level. “We probably need to be taking this seriously. Do I agree personally? Probably not.
Politically? Do we need to do something? I’m sure doing nothing isn’t the right answer politically.”
He also questioned if spread within the municipality has come from the fact many can’t afford to take days off work.
“I think a hard thing is if someone is sick, can they afford not to go to work? I think that is where some spreading is happening. Can they afford to stay home for two weeks?”
Council also asked Brian Schafer, director of emergency management and regional fire chief, what he was hearing on the situation.
“I had a conversation yesterday with AHS around the faith-based organizations. They had a meeting last week with a large majority of the church leaders so hopefully, we will see a difference coming up with church. As far as provincial guidelines, when this started we followed what they had laid out,” he answered, as he also expressed his option a regional mask bylaw for all areas would be best.
A motion to accept the letter as information and start having talks with the Town of Taber for a draft mask bylaw was carried 4-3. Harris, Crowson and Howg opposed.
A special meeting was held on Dec. 1 to discuss Bylaw No. 1969 Face Covering.
Option one includes wording outlining “more of a ‘mandatory’ perspective with corresponding fines, violations and offences” while option two outlined “more ‘non-mandatory’ perspective with information, education and less emphasis on enforcement. I was initially in favour of non-enforcement, but in light of having the bylaw be impactful and for people to know the M.D. of Taber is serious about our design to lower the COVID numbers and I feel a mask bylaw would help us to take action against COVID,” said Miyanaga. Administration also explained for the bylaw to expire, less than 50 cases in the entire MD region would be needed.
“I was also originally in favour of a non-fining bylaw but I’ve changed my mind. It really changes the way the bylaw looks without an enforcement mechanism. I think our top three priorities should be, when dealing with people who aren’t wearing masks, is education, education and education. That is where I lean if our CPO officers are going to be doing this,” added Turcato.
Miyanaga and Turcato also liked the idea of keeping the bylaw in effect for consecutive days after being below 50 so cases don’t jump back up quickly.
“We need to be pragmatic about the situation. I think that is the approach most have taken, and I’m referring to law enforcement. They have been pretty pragmatic and realistic about enforcing any of these measures that come up. We have to adopt the same approach. So if we are 49, technically it says 50, but I think we would still have to be vigilant and careful,” added Crofts.
Other councillors were not as in favour of enforcing a bylaw, citing the resources needed as a potential issue.
“I’m not in favour of a bylaw for the purpose that I feel education would be more beneficial or advocacy at the provincial level to ask the province put mask bylaws in effect when we are in a purple area as opposed to being in an area that is not at risk. I do have concern with enforcement and I do think if we are implementing a bylaw, it must have enforcement but what resources do we have to enforce the bylaw. I do have a fear (of) the divide amongst people because we’ve been in this for the long haul and we’ve still got a ways to go, I feel that the people who are on the kinder side continue to remain kind and those on the opposite side tend to be getting a lot more alleviated at a quicker pace. Right now, we are in a phase where we aren’t supposed to be doing anything and socially distancing but they are still continuing,” said Crowson.
“I think the province is the one that needs to take a lead on this as they are the ones with all of the data of where the transmissions and infections are happening,” added Howg. “I think they have plenty of restrictions in place now to prevent the spread. I also believe in the M.D., there are a lot of decent people out there that understand the risks involved with not wearing a mask. I don’t think we need to put a bylaw in to tell them they have to. I think everyone realizes we have to take care of our neighbours, ourselves and the vulnerable,” said Howg. A motion for council to give first reading to the temporary face covering bylaw 1969 with option one, which includes enforcement, was carried 5-2. Deputy Reeve Crowson and Coun. Howg opposed. A motion for second reading was carried with Howg and Crowson opposing. A motion for unanimous consent to proceed with third and final reading was defeated with Howg opposing. A final motion to set a special meeting for Dec. 2 at 9 a.m. to give third reading of the bylaw was carried unanimously.