City council to consider deactivating mask bylaw

· The Pulse
By Jackson Spring

Edmonton city council will vote on a bylaw amendment on June 25 that if passed, would suspend local rules requiring masks in indoor public spaces beginning July 1.

However, if certain conditions are met, the rules would be reinstated automatically, without requiring a vote.

The amendment to the temporary mandatory face coverings bylaw was first introduced at council on June 22, when a first and second reading passed with a narrow 7-6 vote. A third reading was delayed until June 25.

At the June 22 meeting, the city's administration presented council with several options for amending the bylaw, one of which was to repeal the bylaw entirely. This would mean that if council wanted to institute local mask requirements in the future, council would have to go through another bylaw enactment process.

However, council is voting on another option, which is to deactivate the bylaw on July 1, in conjunction with Stage 3 of the province's reopening plan, which lifts province-wide mask mandates except in continuing care facilities, on public transit, and in taxis or ride-share vehicles. Deactivating the bylaw would also lift local mask requirements, but with a provision that if conditions change and the province returns to an earlier stage of the reopening plan, or if the chief medical officer of health issues an order requiring masks, the local rules would be reinstated automatically. This was administration's recommended option.

"We believe that the ability to reactivate provides the flexibility needed if (COVID-19) and the variants of concern surge, or if there is an emerging waveform," said city manager Andre Corbould.

Patricia Hutchison, a spokesperson for the City of Edmonton, told Taproot that conditions have been built into bylaws in the past.

"We have had situations where we've temporarily paused an activity regulated by a bylaw, such as the issuance of certain types of licenses or permits," Hutchison said in an emailed statement. "Just as council can decide when a bylaw becomes effective, council can write in provisions that set criteria for how the rules in a bylaw are applied."

Edmonton's temporary mandatory face coverings bylaw was first instituted on July 29, 2020. At the time, there were no provincial rules mandating masks. (iStock)

Edmonton's temporary mandatory face coverings bylaw was first instituted on July 29, 2020. At the time, there were no provincial rules mandating masks. (iStock)

Other jurisdictions in Alberta have built conditions for deactivation and activation into their local mask bylaws.

Strathcona County council passed a local face coverings bylaw in August that would activate automatically once the county passed a threshold of 25 active COVID-19 cases, rather than come into effect immediately. The bylaw was activated on Oct. 5, 2020.

Grande Prairie city council included both activation and deactivation thresholds in its local bylaw, which passed Sept. 8, 2020. The bylaw came into effect on Oct. 26, 2020, when the city and county of Grande Prairie reached a combined 100 active cases. If cases in the two jurisdictions would have dipped below 100 for 14 consecutive days, the bylaw would have deactivated automatically — which did not happen before the bylaw expired on Jan. 31, 2021.

Edmonton councillor Jon Dziadyk, who introduced the motion to amend the face coverings bylaw, said suspending the mask requirements on Canada Day would align the city with provincial health experts, who informed the reopening plan.

"(On July 1) we'll have met the threshold that the province and the medical experts have set out," he said, referring to the fact that more than 70% of Albertans have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, which was the province's condition for moving to Stage 3.

Some of the councillors who voted against the first two readings of the amendment said they preferred another option presented by the administration, which was to deactivate the bylaw two weeks after 50% of Edmontonians received both doses of the vaccine. Corbould estimated this threshold would be met mid-July.

"Two weeks after 50% of Edmontonians getting their second shot is likely to be around the end of July. That is only four weeks later than what Stage 3 would do. That is the direction I would have preferred to take today," Coun. Andrew Knack said on Twitter.

Mayor Don Iveson, who voted against the amendment, noted that the Edmonton Zone Medical Staff Association (EZMSA) urged the city to keep its mask requirements in place beyond July 1, due to concerns about the Delta variant of the virus.

"We are hearing conflicting advice," he said. "Each time (EZMSA has) illustrated a risk for us, or a risk for the province, they have generally been correct."

If passed, Edmontonians will no longer have to wear masks in indoor public spaces, besides on transit. Hutchison also noted that even if the face coverings bylaw is deactivated, some city facilities have their own rules, including mask requirements, that will be reconsidered separately.

"We have always had facility-specific rules to ensure safety, and will be evaluating whether masks are part of that over the next few weeks," she said.