Calgary votes to keep masks mandatory for now, next update in December

Masks will continue to remain mandatory in Calgary's public spaces, council voted Monday.

While council could call a special meeting to repeal bylaw at any time

A person wears a mask inside a pot shop in Calgary. COVID-19 cases in the city have increased dramatically in recent days. (Helen Pike/CBC)

Masks will continue to remain mandatory in Calgary's public spaces, council decided Monday.

Council voted 11-3 to maintain the current bylaw as is, with the next update to be heard on Dec. 14. The only votes against were Councillors Sean Chu, Jeromy Farkas, and Joe Magliocca.

On Aug. 1, the city implemented a bylaw mandating face coverings in indoor public spaces, in step with other cities like Toronto and Ottawa.

Dr. Raj Bhardwaj, an urgent care doctor in the city, told council Monday that as Alberta continues to have the highest number of cases per 100,000 people of any province in Canada, masks continue to be necessary. 

"Half-time is over, schools are open, the weather is cooling, days are shorter and winter is coming, and we're still learning more about this virus," he said. "It's about protecting all of society from this illness.

"Ultimately this is still about risk versus benefit, the risks of mask use are small … the benefits of mask use are super clear."

89% of Calgarians wear masks in indoor public spaces: survey

Council heard from administration that the majority of Calgarians support the bylaw, according to its research.

A city survey of 500 Calgarians conducted between Aug. 25 and 28 found that 88 per cent support the bylaw, 89 per cent wear a mask inside spaces like grocery stores or malls, and 95 per cent wear a mask on public transit.

That percentage of indoor mask use was up 34 per cent since the bylaw was implemented. 

"Calgarians are incredible, the way they have embraced the bylaw is amazing," Calgary Emergency Management Agency Chief Tom Sampson said. 

City council saw this chart on Monday, which shows the number of active COVID-19 cases in Calgary before and after the mask bylaw was implemented. (City of Calgary)

There are currently 557 active COVID-19 cases in the city, and outbreaks at multiple locations, including long-term care centres, meat processing plants, a church, private gatherings, an Amazon warehouse, and schools.

That's a rate of 36.3 cases per 100,000 people, but with a kernel of good news in the transmission rate — Sampson said the current RT value is .85, meaning each person with COVID-19 spreads the illness to less than one other person. 

Calgary is currently at the Level 2: Enhanced Watch step of its COVID-19 response plan. (City of Calgary)

Administration said since the bylaw was implemented, there have only been two cases where tickets were issued, and that it found no need to change the bylaw's wording. However, Calgary Community Standards has received more than 600 reports of concerns through 311

Those who fail to wear a mask and don't meet exemptions can be fined $50, but the city has said it has focused on education, not enforcement. 

When will bylaw be revoked?

Coun. Jeromy Farkas questioned how to judge the efficacy of the bylaw and under what circumstances it should be repealed, something Sampson said is hard to definitely say without a double-blind, randomized controlled trial.

"If I wear a mask, I might be a person who is more conscious about touching my face," Sampson said, adding that the majority of medical evidence points toward masks being effective. 

Council can call a special meeting at any time to repeal the bylaw, and administration said reasons for repeal could range from a vaccine becoming available to transmission and infection rates dropping low enough that medical experts agree masks are no longer required.

"If I were to look to the future, that [reason for repeal] would likely be a vaccine," said Sampson. 

Bhardwaj pointed to how much still isn't known about masks and the virus, like emerging evidence that masks could grant some level of immunity as they reduce the number of infectious particles a wearer is exposed to.

"As a council we simply have to put our personal opinions aside and listen to the experts," Coun. Jeff Davison said. 


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