WESTLOCK – Unless local COVID-19 cases spike dramatically, the Town of Westlock will not pursue a face covering bylaw.
In addition to rejecting a mask bylaw at their Aug. 10 meeting, councillors voted 6-0 to have the municipality continue its public education campaign aimed at keeping residents safe during the coronavirus pandemic. Since the outbreak there have only been a handful of confirmed cases in the Westlock area — the most recent came at the beginning of the month after a town employee tested positive (asymptomatic) for COVID-19 after a shift at the Rotary Spirit Centre Aug. 1.
“We have regular communication with the medical community and if our cases start to rise and it looks like it could become a more serious problem, then we may need to act a bit quicker. And in the meantime administration could be looking at some of the other bylaws and perhaps by that time the province takes some action (in regards to a face covering law),” said mayor Ralph Leriger.
“Certainly there’s lots of great information on the AHS website, the government’s website and we can provide some of that through our website and the newspaper. Let’s start with that.
“Our engagement and educational approach versus an enforcement approach during the (initial) closures was very effective and our community has a lot to be proud of. If you look at how few cases we’ve had and what little community transmission there’s been that’s a direct result of what we did.”
Council uniformly agreed that even if they passed a bylaw, enforcement would be an issue for the community’s lone peace officer. They were also cognizant of the stresses small business owners continue to face due to the pandemic. As it stands a handful of local businesses, as well as doctor’s offices, require patrons to wear a mask when entering.
“We certainly do not have the manpower to be running here or there all over town to see if Billy is wearing a face mask. That would be a logistical nightmare,” said Coun. David Truckey.
“It’s multi-faceted. It’s about our economy, it’s about our thoughtfulness to our citizens. It’s about our demographics and the age of our population and our elders that are in our community facilities — our grandmas and grandpas, aunties and uncles. We have to take all that into consideration.”
“I think we’re all pretty much in agreement that we have little opportunity to enforce it (a bylaw),” added Leriger.
On July 29, Edmonton city council voted 10-3 to make masks mandatory in all public indoor spaces effective Aug. 1 — the bylaw applies to not just city-owned facilities, but privately-owned businesses. Face coverings are now required in places like retail stores, entertainment venues, rec centres and vehicles-for-hire.
Meanwhile, St. Albert city council voted 6-1 Aug. 4 to approve a bylaw mandating the use of masks in indoor public facilities, including private businesses, on public transit and in city-owned facilities. The new rules came into effect midnight Aug. 8.
Leriger said he’s been on the phone with mayors from neighbouring communities talking about the issue and noted Spruce Grove did an online survey regarding the topic over the August long weekend.
“They got something like 2,750 responses and it ended up basically 50-50 … well, 49-51. And of each 50, 40 per cent were adamant for no masks and on the other side 40 out of the 50 were adamant for masks. So it really put them in a bit of a pickle,” said Leriger.
“They’ve yet to pass anything in council but what (Spruce Grove) mayor (Stuart) Houston told me is that I think their intention is to have administration undertake an education/awareness campaign and then set a trigger for masking — they will consider their masking bylaw if they reach Alberta Health Services’ COVID watch list.
“I did ask our local doctors and our rep from AHS to help me understand the watch list. I think for Sherwood Park it would be 25 active cases, Spruce Grove was 18 and for us it was 10.”
Coun. John Shoemaker, who made it clear he wasn’t in favour of a bylaw, rejected the rhetoric that masking laws are a government plot to curtail the rights of citizens. AHS encourages people to wear non-medical masks in public when it's difficult to maintain physical distancing of two metres.
“We’ve got seatbelt laws, distracted driving rules, speeding laws, drunk driving laws and smoking in public places is banned over concerns with second-hand smoke. We’re always enacting laws which impede individuals’ rights and as a society we think these are what’s best (for the majority). The masks are not an attempt to get more control over people, it’s to stop the spread of this virus. And if we can get the virus stopped we can go back to pre-COVID living,” said Coun. Shoemaker.
“The statistics show that wearing masks stops the spread of this virus, so why wouldn’t people want to do that? I don’t get it.”
While giving praise to the community for its response to pandemic, Leriger knows people are getting tired. That said he wanted to remind people to remain patient and courteous, especially to those working in the retail sector.
“Everybody is under a lot of stress, they’re angry and anxious. But I’ve seen this shift from ‘we’re all in this together’ to ‘we’re coming apart at the seams.’ I want to remind folks that people working at our stores shouldn’t have to put up with people coming unglued on them,” Leriger said.
“I think in some ways we’re victims of our own success in regards to curtailing the pandemic and now people have fallen into the trap that they don’t think it’s a credible threat.”