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UPDATE2: Mask bylaws on the table

Athabasca County and Town of Athabasca council approve temporary face-covering bylaws; Village of Boyle declines
ATH masks_hs
Athabasca County and the Town of Athabasca now have a temporary face-covering bylaw on the books that will be enacted when and if the region comes under provincial “Watch” status, with 10 or more active cases, and an active case rate of more than 50 per 100,000. The Village of Boyle decided against passing the same legislation. File

Update2: Updated to reflect decision and discussion by Town of Athabasca council, as well as additional discussion and details from the Athabasca County meeting Nov. 17 and the Village of Boyle meeting Nov. 18.

ATHABASCA – A temporary face-covering bylaw is now on the books in both Athabasca County and the Town of Athabasca and will come into effect when and if the area comes under provincial “Watch” status, with 10 or more active cases, and an active case rate of more than 50 per 100,000 residents; the Village of Boyle however, decided against passing the same bylaw.

Town of Athabasca councillors unanimously passed the bylaw during a regular council meeting, conducted via Zoom, the evening of Nov. 17, just hours after their counterparts at the county did the same at a special meeting over Zoom that morning.

At the town’s Nov. 3 meeting, council directed administration to draft such a bylaw to have ready for the Nov. 17 meeting, but at the county’s Nov. 10 meeting, councillors there passed a motion to request representatives from the three municipalities meet as soon as possible, and set a special meeting date of Nov. 17 to vote on the legislation. The wording of the bylaw was then agreed upon by elected officials and administrators from all three municipalities.

As of Nov. XX, there are seven active cases within the borders of Athabasca County, which includes the Town of Athabasca and Village of Boyle. The active case rate per 100,000 residents sits at 53. This means the bylaw will be triggered if three more active cases arise before anyone currently infected is cleared. The village and the immediate surrounding area currently have two of the county's active cases, and have had eight of the county's total 22 cases since the beginning of the pandemic, according to numbers provided on the Government of Alberta's website.

Village of Boyle

Village of Boyle council was the last of the three area municipalities to vote on the bylaw, and the only one not to pass it.

In a difference of opinion from their counterparts in the town and county, councillors chose not to enact the bylaw at their Nov. 18 regular meeting, citing the inability to enforce it and a concern they would going above and beyond what the province is enforcing. They did agree that everyone should be following Alberta Health Services (AHS) guidelines. 

"So, here's one of my problems with this bylaw we got — it doesn't seem like anybody knows what the Hell it is,” mayor Colin Derko said. “It's all been presented to everybody and everybody's reading it differently, which is my fear about somebody cutting and pasting and making a bylaw and three days later, municipalities just accepting it and then let's just see what happens. 

“And the comment from one of the town councillors to me was, ‘Well, there's no way we can enforce it, and we're not even going to try to.’ Why would we be putting ourselves at an open risk by putting in a bylaw in that we can't enforce?” 

Coun. Shelby Kiteley however said she was concerned that not enacting the bylaw may be sending the wrong message. 

“I just feel like us as municipal leaders need to set an example by stating that we recommend wearing a mask due to an increase in COVID numbers,” she said. “If we won’t come out and say that then nobody else is going to take it seriously.” 

The councillors agreed they felt forced into a bylaw they did not want, even though they agreed masks are a part of preventing the spread. 

“I kind of feel like we were put in an unfair situation with the town and the county right now,” Coun. Barb Smith said. “I wear a mask everywhere I go but I do feel that a bylaw has to be enforceable and I don't know if this is the proper thing, but I strongly agree with Shelby — we need to be putting that messaging out there and we need to be vocal about it because we are the leaders, they come to us.” 

Council unanimously agreed to post information on social media, the village website and in public locations around the community encouraging people to follow AHS guidelines on masks and hand sanitizing.

Town of Athabasca

Town council passed all three readings of Bylaw 011-2020 unanimously with no opposition.

“The intent of this, of course, is to trigger a mandatory mask bylaw for indoor public spaces, as opposed to say an office where you're all working, but you are able to distance yourselves. If not, you should be wearing the masks,” said mayor Colleen Powell.

“Although our numbers are very small part of it is there's two things — one, you only need one person to start a major cycle; the second is we've got, I think, it's 400 doctors or so demanding a provincewide shut down. Not because we've got so many sick people, but because the hospitals are running out of space.”

Wearing a mask is just one of the many things people should be practicing during such a pandemic, she said.

“A mask is simply a mask, it's not denying your civil rights. It's just a piece of paper or a piece of cloth that you put on when you go into a store. But you also have to do your sanitizing, you have to do your hand washing, it comes as a package. It doesn't necessarily protect you, but it protects others from you in case you're ill.”

CAO Rachel Ramey said she looked at a few bylaws from nearby communities while drafting the document that, unknown to her until late last week, would soon be considered by all three local municipalities.

“No matter what decision we come to tonight, there's going to be people on the opposite side of what we decide that are not happy. But in making my decision it’s solely based on a public health issue. This isn't a political issue. It's not a civil rights issue. It's not a religious issue. It's a public health issue,” said Coun. Rob Balay, adding he wanted to support healthcare workers and the most vulnerable in the community, as well as local business.

Coun. Tannia Cherniwchan agreed, “The fact is, we've all been approached by people doing our errands in town about the concern of protecting our people from the onslaught of the disease, which has taken over many communities, and we must help out our health workers and our businesses.”

Athabasca County

Athabasca County councillors met earlier that day via Zoom for a special meeting and unanimously passed Bylaw 032-2020. Once activated, “the provisions of this bylaw shall remain in place for two weeks (14 days) after the Athabasca region has been taken off a “Watch” status.

“All persons shall wear a face covering in an indoor, enclosed or substantially enclosed public place or public vehicle where a physical barrier is not in place or where physical distancing of two metres is challenging or not possible,” the document reads.

The special county meeting started with a presentation from David Neufeld, a pastor with the Aspen Ridge Christian Fellowship church, who argued against passing a face-covering bylaw, citing government statistics, studies and articles to back up his stance. Increased sanitation, physical distancing and the use of Plexiglass are proven safeguards that are accepted and working, he said, which is held up by the relatively low number of cases within county borders.

Council heard him out, but quickly moved on to the bylaw soon after he was finished presenting. An hour-long discussion then ensued, where councillors went back and forth on some of the finer points of the bylaw, considered a few amendments, but eventually passed third reading after some negotiation between themselves.

“I know we cannot control our world, no matter what, even if we’re putting this bylaw in place, but the expectation is that as adults we would look out for those around us, and as a council member I believe that I’m responsible for deciding in favour of the greatest good to the greatest number of people,” said Coun. Doris Splane. “The evidence I have to date is that masks do help; they do not cure; they do not prevent; they are supposedly going to bring that curve down ... We as a county, as a council, need to do what we can. We can’t conquer this virus, but we certainly can do things to protect our people, our residents, and I believe that is our responsibility.”

Coun. Travais Johnson said he was on the fence about what decision to make.

“I don’t want to do more than what the provincial government is doing. I’ve heard good things about wearing a mask, but I have a hard time taking away their freedoms and telling people they have to, that heavy-handed type of thing,” he said.

County manager Ryan Maier reminded councillors there are actually very few public spaces within the county that will be affected.

“Our bylaw only covers public places in the county … what it comes down to is probably the judgment of enforcement. The bylaw you’re looking at potentially passing today is symbolic in nature more than anything,” he said. “We have very few public spaces in the county — Grassland, Wandering River, Rochester and Colinton. That’s where our public spaces are and that is where our bylaw will be in effect, so really the bylaw is more of a support for the village and the town, just to say that we’re all in this together.”

There was a general agreement that public health decisions are actually a provincial responsibility, and a few councillors had choice words for being put in the position they were in, calling it another case of the province downloading its responsibilities onto municipalities.

The big point of contention that arose came when Coun. Dennis Willcott recommended the bylaw be enacted immediately, until the end of the year, regardless of active case numbers. That went to first reading and passed with a 5-4 vote with councillors Dwayne Rawson, Kevin Haines, Warren Griffin and Travais Johnson standing opposed, citing a lack of consistency among the three municipalities that are considering the bylaw this week, if the proposed changes were approved.

The lack of consensus on first reading prompted Coun. Christi Bilsky to ask what needed to be done for the bylaw to pass all three readings, without delay, during that meeting, as it had been organized for that specific reason. To pass all three readings in a single meeting, there must be a consensus of council to proceed to third reading, and it wasw clear that wasn't going to happen.

“We can kind of see where this is going, and I’d really like to work something out today. We called a special meeting, we’re here and we’re talking about it — what do we need to do so all nine of us can get on the same page?” she asked.

Coun. Dwayne Rawson was one of the councillors who spoke loudly about downloading from the province and noted the bylaw wasn’t going to be enforceable and that an education component would be very important as well. More than anything though, Rawson wanted consistency between the three municipalities.

“We have to all be on the same page — the town, the village and the county — I would support that 100 per cent, but I will not support three municipalities with three different rules,” said Rawson.

“I feel the same way,” said Haines. “We have to have consistency among the three of us and I think we should have consistency with the province.”

“I certainly think we have to be consistent across the county,” said reeve Larry Armfelt. “I’m not sure we’re ever going to get the province to come down with a cut-and-dry policy, and that scares me."

After a little more discussion, Rawson, Haines, Griffin and Johnson agreed the bylaw as originally presented would be acceptable. It was then voted upon for second reading and passed by consensus, along with a motion to go to third reading and then third reading itself.

Inside the bylaw

The definitions section of the bylaw describes a public place as “an indoor space open to the public by right or by express or implied invitation regardless of who owns or occupies the indoor space, whether on payment of any fee or not and includes the area occupied by the driver and passengers in a public vehicle but does not include an indoor space located within: a school or other educational institution; a hospital or other health care facility; or a childcare facility.”

A public vehicle means 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.

Of course there are a number of exemptions in the bylaw for persons under 10; persons who are unable to place, use, or remove a face covering without assistance; persons unable to wear a face covering due to a mental or physical concern or limitation, or a protected ground under the Alberta Human Rights Act, RSA 2000, c A25.5.

Anyone consuming food or drink while seated in a designated food and drink seating area, or as part of a religious or spiritual ceremony is exempt, as are persons engaged in water activities or engaged in physical exercise or other physical activity, within an area designated for such activities; persons providing care or assistance to a person with a disability where a face covering would hinder that care-giving or assistance; and persons engaging in services that require the temporary removal of a face covering.

Further exemptions include persons participating in a dance, theatrical or musical public performance, if all participants in the performance are able to maintain at least two metres of physical distance from each other and do not enter the areas where the public is viewing the performance; persons providing or receiving a service that requires personal consultation if that activity occurs in a closed office or meeting room and all participants in the personal consultation are able to maintain physical separation of at least two metres from each other; and persons separated from others by physical barriers or shields such as Plexiglass.

Those found to be in violation of the bylaw, when it is in place, will be subject to a $100 fine for their first offence, and $150 per subsequent offence.

The full bylaw can be viewed at: