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Regional council delays decision on mandatory masks in Fort McMurray

The Fort McMurray region, which has been under a COVID-19 watch since last week, will not be bringing in a mandatory mask bylaw this month, after regional council opted to delay a third reading of the bylaw.

Region has been under a COVID-19 watch since last week

Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo council will not vote on the final reading of a proposed mandatory face covering bylaw until Oct. 13. (narongpon chaibot/Shutterstock)

The Fort McMurray region, which has been under a COVID-19 watch since last week, will not be bringing in a mandatory mask bylaw this month, after regional council opted to delay a third reading of the bylaw.

Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo (RMWB) council passed a second reading of the bylaw 6-4 Tuesday, but a motion for consideration of third reading did not pass unanimously, so the bylaw won't be voted on until Oct. 13.

Coun. Sheila Lalonde was the only one to vote against the motion.

"I don't think we are qualified to make this bylaw," Lalonde said at the meeting, noting that mandatory masks are not required under guidance from Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta's chief medical officer of health or Canada's Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam. 

RMWB council received more than 100 written submissions on the proposed bylaw, with the vast majority being against making face coverings mandatory. 

The RMWB has been under a COVID-19 watch status since Sept. 8, as it currently has more than 50 active cases per 100,000 people, a rate of 65.1. According to provincial COVID-19 data, there are currently 50 active cases in Fort McMurray and another four in the surrounding area of the RMWB. 

The region currently has four outbreaks at oilsands sites, though most of the cases are recovered.

The outbreaks are at the Syncrude Mildred Lake site, Syncrude Aurora site,  CNRL AlbianSands  and the Suncor Base plant. As of Tuesday afternoon, the cases numbers are:

• Suncor base plant, Fort McMurray – Outbreak opened on Aug. 31 – 1 active case, 8 recovered.
• Syncrude Mildred Lake site, Fort McMurray – Outbreak opened on Sept. 1 – 7 active, 16 recovered.
• Syncrude Aurora site, Fort McMurray – Outbreak opened on Sept. 11 –  0 active cases, 5 recovered.
• CNRL Albian Sands site, Fort Mackay  – Outbreak opened on Aug. 9 – 0 active cases, 7 recovered.
 
Syncrude, which has seen the largest of the recent COVID-19 oilsands outbreaks at its Mildred Lake site, supports the mandatory mask bylaw. 

"The reason we're supportive of that is that most of the cases involving our workforce involved community transmission, that's what our investigations indicate," Syncrude spokesperson Will Gibson told CBC News Tuesday.

A dump truck works near the Syncrude oilsands extraction facility near Fort McMurray, Alta., on June 1, 2014. Between the Syncrude Aurora site and Syncrude Mildred Lake site, there are currently seven active cases and 21 recovered cases of COVID-19. (Jason Franson/Canadian Press)

Syncrude is committed to keeping its workers safe, Gibson added and the company already requires masking on site, as well as other health measures like physical distancing and handwashing. 

Mandatory masks

Many cities in Alberta already have mandatory mask bylaws, including Edmonton, Calgary, Canmore and Lethbridge. 

Dr. Lynora Saxinger, an infectious diseases specialist and associate professor of microbiology and immunology at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, noted that although mask bylaws are becoming more common, there is debate about how effective they are. 

"I think if the data were crystal clear, there would be a public health-based mandatory mask order that was national, but because the data is, I think, still somewhat controversial, you see a variety of things happening," she said. "And I do think most people agree that if you're in a setting where there is increased transmission risk, I think that increases the interest in the mandatory mask bylaw. It is not yet clear how effective that is."

Saxinger said that masking isn't very effective if people fail to follow other public health guidance like physical distancing and handwashing. 

Saxinger noted that Fort McMurray has a younger population and many workers who are travelling, which can be a challenge for reducing community transmission. 

"It's an interesting community because in addition to being quite transient, it's also quite young and that's often a difficult demographic in terms of managing the contact numbers," she said. "It's also a demographic where it doesn't seem as serious to people, because there are much less likely to get significantly ill. 

"The only issue is that usually after you've had a certain amount of community transmission for a while in the younger, healthier people … eventually it does start spilling over into more vulnerable groups in the community."

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