By Trevor Busch
With COVID-19 numbers escalating locally and throughout southern Alberta, demands for a mandatory mask bylaw in Taber have also been multiplying.
Following debate at a special meeting on Nov. 30, town council unanimously passed Temporary Mandatory Face Coverings Bylaw 22-2020.
Under the new bylaw, a person “must wear a face covering at all times while in an indoor, enclosed, or substantially enclosed public place or in a public vehicle.”
Two versions of the bylaw were presented. Version 1 had wording reflecting “mandatory” along with detailing a fine and offence perspective, while Version 2 had wording reflecting “non-mandatory” along with an information, education and a non-enforcement perspective.
Coun. Garth Bekkering opened the discussion inquiring if any other municipalities had implemented a “non-mandatory” bylaw.
“I don’t know about the exact wording of the bylaw, but I believe there’s confirmation where the big centers — Lethbridge included — were not enforcing the bylaw,” said Mayor Andrew Prokop.
“I know that there’s been challenges with enforcement, but I can’t say that no one isn’t enforcing the bylaw,” said TPS Chief Graham Abela.
Under the bylaw, a public place is defined as “any property or portion of a property, whether publicly or privately owned, to which members of the public have access as of right or by express or implied invitation, whether on payment of any fee or not.”
Public vehicles are defined as “a motor vehicle used or offered for the transportation of at least one passenger in return for a fee, and includes but is not limited to motor vehicles typically referred to as buses, taxis, shuttles, transportation network vehicles, and limousines.”
“From my perspective, it seems if you’re going to have a bylaw, it should be an enforceable bylaw even though it might not be readily available to be enforced,” said Bekkering. “I’m glad the chief of police is here. There’s a very powerful tool the police have in their arsenal, and it’s called discretion.”
Abela hoped heavy enforcement would not be required and that local citizens choose to voluntarily comply with the restriction.
“Discretion is one of the oldest common law principals that exists to the office of police officer or constable in our system. Any bylaw that is put in place will require officers to attend to and make discretionary calls as to how and when a bylaw would be enforced. There are challenges associated with all legislation as it relates to enforcement, this one as well. We’ve seen it in other municipalities. If council makes the decision to move forward — either way — the Taber Police Service will support whichever decision you make. We hope the public will voluntarily comply with the intent of the bylaws — either one — and enforcement and police involvement is not necessarily required. And the police reserve the right not to use the provisions of this bylaw, to use other pieces of provincial legislation including trespass law and the orders of the Chief Medical Officer of Health, where applicable, to be more appropriate than perhaps certain municipal bylaws depending on the context.”
Sections 5 to 9 of the bylaw come into effect when the total number of active COVID-19 cases within the region of Taber (as determined by the Government of Alberta) is reported by Alberta Health Services to be 50 cases or more per 100,000 in population, and will remain in effect until the bylaw is repealed.
“We have had calls from businesses in relation to policies that they have about masking, and people not masking, and we’ve attended and dealt with those appropriately,” continued Abela. “Those calls also go to the public health department for their own investigation and follow up. We have not been asked by public health, to this date, to lay any charges.”
The bylaw will not apply to persons under the age of 10, individuals that cannot place, use or remove a face covering without assistance, those unable due to a mental or physical concern, while consuming food or drink in designated seating areas or as part of a religious or spiritual ceremony, persons engaged in physical activities, water activities, or while attending a sauna or steam room, when a face mask might hinder care giving to those with disabilities, persons engaging in services that require temporary removal, those engaged in a dance, theatrical or musical public performance under strict circumstances, persons providing or receiving a service that requires personal consultation in a closed office or meeting room, also under strict circumstances, and persons separated from others by physical barriers or shields.
“I think we need to go with the mandatory approach,” said Coun. Louie Tams. “COVID is real, whether we like to admit it or not, and wearing a mask — and I have my mask here, I wore it in; I don’t have it on now but I will put it on again when I leave — but I think for the respect of everyone else, and as leaders of a community, this is real and I’m glad that this same discussion is going on with the MD, so we’re building a whole regional thing on this. But I think we are at the point within our community, we’re very close to being in the red zone with the number of cases we have here, and I think the only thing we can do is make a mandatory mask bylaw and hopefully we can fix the curve. It’s just doing our part, and I think it’s just respect for other people.”
Sec. 5 does not apply to schools and other educational facilities, hospitals and health care facilities, child care facilities, and “areas exclusively accessed or used by the public place’s employees or a public vehicle operator, or platform and stage areas in places of worship during worship services, provided that physical barriers or physical distancing practices are implemented between any person not required to wear a face covering by operation of this exception and any other person.”
“I happen to believe that the enforcement piece is somewhat critical in a sense, but somehow I maybe believe it isn’t,” said Bekkering. “But I do believe that our Taber Police Service is a kinder and gentler police service, and they’ll do the right thing.”
Persons found to be in violation of the bylaw will be subject to a fine of no less than $100. The bylaw is officially in effect as of Nov.30.
“I think we’ve got very talented police officers that have lots of discretion, and I think they’ll do the utmost to make things happen properly,” said Coun. Mark Garner.
Coun. Carly Firth had issues with the mandatory aspect of any bylaw, but recognized that more stringent protocols are needed in Taber and area.
“I do have concerns with a mandatory bylaw — the enforceability of it — however the stronger wording of a mandatory bylaw is necessary. We’ve been encouraging all along for people to wear masks, and some people have been complying and some people have not, and I feel that without the enforcement piece it’s not strong enough.”
Mayor Andrew Prokop saw the matter as doing the right thing for citizens.
“I think we’re just looking for the maximum compliance possible, is I think the end-all goal here, following all the AHS rules and recommendations and restrictions, and I think this just ties into it. And ultimately doing the right thing for the safety and benefit of our community residents, and area residents as well.”
Following debate on Nov. 30, council voted unanimously to pass third and final reading of Temporary Mandatory Face Coverings Bylaw 22-2020. Councillors Jack Brewin and Joe Strojwas were absent.
At the Nov. 23 meeting, Firth had initially brought the matter to the table relating that a growing number of citizens had been applying pressure to have the municipality take action.
“I’ve had several citizens bring forward concerns regarding the pandemic and the number of positive cases in our municipality and surrounding MD. Most of these concerns have been centering around our lack of a mask bylaw, why we don’t have one, is it possible to implement one? And so I am bringing this forward as promised and looking for some feedback from fellow councillors.”
While reporting other citizens had been reaching out over the proposal, Coun. Garth Bekkering argued a mandatory mask bylaw is essentially unenforceable.
“I’ve also been contacted by several people regarding a mask, or non-bylaw. And my general response has been whether I agree with a masking bylaw or not, I find it extremely difficult to justify discussing it because of the very difficult time the police might have to enforce it, because it’s almost unenforceable. Therefore, I’ve left it alone. Personally, I’m not in favour of a mandatory mask bylaw, but for heaven’s sake wear a mask.”
Coun. Jack Brewin felt such restrictions should be implemented at the provincial level, not by municipalities.
“I’ve had numerous calls this past week about masks, and my answer has been we’re following the provincial guidelines as of now. I’m thinking in the future something is going to happen with our provincial government that is going to make the law for us so they don’t make all the municipalities take all the weight of making people wear masks. But I’m in favour of wearing masks if it’s going to help our economy and prevent another lockdown.”
Mayor Andrew Prokop was also concerned about the prospect of enforcement, and the various difficulties this might present for local police.
“I have also had a number of calls related to that and fielded those accordingly, and I can say — I know even Coaldale is looking at it as a possibility going forward — but it seems to me the bylaw question is a concern as Councillor Bekkering indicated also, it becomes difficult to enforce it. Bylaws quite often have holes in them, and this would be no different, and they’re finding that out now others that have implemented that bylaw. So I don’t know how well a bylaw takes care of this question or concern. I really believe it’s more of an AHS or provincial mandate requirement. That type of legislation has way more strength than any bylaw ever could.”
“But failing that, I think there’s an indication there could be some regional interest to do something at our end as a region.” continued Prokop. “So we could potentially look at that also as a potential option. Honestly, going with the bylaw route, I don’t see that being the end-all, be-all answer. Better to be AHS or the provincial legislative process.”
Brewin did encourage locals to wear masks whether or not the town or province enforces mandatory measures.
“I agree with what you’re saying, and if people would voluntarily wear masks and not make us go through all this…but be safe, wear a mask.”
Placing faith in a quick turn-around on the vaccine front, Coun. Joe Strojwas felt a mandatory mask proposal will become less important as more Canadians are vaccinated.
“I think we’ll find that as these vaccines come rolling out here in the next few weeks, this will become less and less of an issue, because the vulnerable populations will all be vaccinated appropriately here, and probably a good portion of them by the end of December.”
“I would agree with the issue of enforc- ing a bylaw,” said Firth. I don’t believe in enacting a bylaw that we aren’t prepared to enforce, or we aren’t able to effectively enforce — that’s just lip service to me, and a waste of time.”