Lac La Biche County will not bring in a mask bylaw after a narrow 5-4 vote at the council meeting on Dec. 1, but will strengthen the existing mask recommendation for county buildings.
Council members spoke passionately for and against the bylaw for over an hour in a discussion of the proposed motion, which would have directed administration to draft a bylaw mandating masks in all indoor public spaces in Lac La Biche County, as long as the county is on an enhanced list for Alberta Health Services.
The issue was previously discussed at the Nov. 24 council meeting and tabled in anticipation of a provincial announcement that afternoon.
A key point in the discussion raised by a number of council members was criticism of the province for not having made masks mandatory across the board on Nov. 24 and leaving it up to individual municipalities to decide.
“I do believe that this mandate should come from the province. They’re the ones that have the doctors that have the stats that know where the locations are. But we’re not getting it from the province either right now. And we know this is not the only thing that the province has downloaded onto us,” said Ward 5 Coun. Charlyn Moore.
Another discussion point was the ability of the county to enforce a bylaw if it were passed.
“We have areas in town that need cruising through looking for violators like thieves, burning vehicles, stealing, break and enters, guns to your head. Those are the kinds of things I want my CPOs to be doing,” said Ward 1 Coun. Darlene Beniuk.
Mayor Omer Moghrabi noted that the CPOs are not responsible for criminal investigations like the issues raised by Beniuk.
“I don’t want to see the CPOs out there forcing people to wear masks. It’s just not going to happen. Even if have a bylaw in place, they have better things to do,” said Ward 3 Coun. Colette Borgun, who supported a policy mandating face coverings in county buildings.
Beniuk gave a lengthy speech about the principles of a free and democratic society, while Ward 2 Coun. George L’Heureux argued that if the concern was for the health system they ought to ban the sale of alcohol and tobacco to reduce the pressures of heart disease, stroke, and car accidents on the hospital.
He also felt a mask bylaw was beyond the county’s jurisdiction.
Ward 4 Coun. Jason Stedman who is a paramedic said “We’ve been dealing with those issues for a long time, our health care system is designed to handle that caseload as expected. It’s an expected number, it’s actually a predictable number that we usually get, and we can be prepared for. COVID is a spike that pushes it to the next level.”
Stedman emphasized that the mask bylaw being discussed was a temporary measure to respond to the temporary issue of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ward 6 Coun. Sterling Johnson noted the behaviour of the general public with regards to masking had changed since cases started cropping up in the county.
“Put your hand sanitizers are on a table, put your masks on a table, people will bow to peer pressure. Peer pressure is what’s going to change this every time,” said Johnson.
He also suggested if the County were going to err, they ought to err on the side of caution.
“If we enact a bylaw, and the provincial or federal directive changes, we can very easily back up. The thing we can’t do is go back after we have not acted and say should have could have.”
Cases of COVID-19 in Lac La Biche County have been rising in recent weeks, with the region showing 70 active cases as of Wednesday, a rate of 532 per 100,000 people. In comparison, the City of Edmonton which has more than 6,000 active cases has a rate of 590.5 cases per 100,000 people.
Other municipalities in the Lakeland have also discussed the issue, with Bonnyville and Cold Lake both choosing not to mandate masks and the Town of St. Paul creating a policy requiring masks inside of town facilities.
Following the defeat of the bylaw motion, Ward 7 Coun. Lorin Tkachuk proposed strengthening the county’s existing mask recommendations to a formal policy requiring temporary face coverings inside all county facilities with exceptions for eating, drinking, young children, and exercise.
“We’re going to act as leaders in this situation. To show that we’re, we’re doing what we need to do for the buildings within our control in my mind, and the other buildings that are privately owned, I would encourage the business owners to do the same,” said Tkachuk.
“I feel that we’ve skirted our responsibilities, and we really have done nothing,” said Stedman, who voted against the policy because he felt it had already been decided when council defeated the proposed bylaw directive.
The policy directive carried with a majority.