Alberta to force municipalities to lift mask bylaws
'We certainly shouldn't allow political science to be a substitute for public health science,' Kenney says
The Alberta government is moving to force all municipalities in the province to lift their COVID-19 mask bylaws.
"Something that Albertans do not deserve right now is uncertainty and confusion," Premier Jason Kenney said at a news conference in Red Deer Tuesday.
"That is why I am announcing today that Alberta's government will introduce in the legislature, as soon as possible, amendments to the Municipal Government Act which will remove the abilities of municipalities to impose their own separate public health restrictions."
The Alberta government lifted its mask mandate as of March 1 as part of its general easing of COVID-19 restrictions.
Calgary ended its face covering bylaw at the same time.
However, the City of Edmonton's face-covering bylaw remains in effect. Edmonton city council will hold a special meeting on March 8 to discuss its mask bylaw.
"A patchwork of separate policies across the province could just lead to greater division, confusion, enforcement difficulty with no compelling public health rationale," Kenney said.
"That's why we have decided to move forward united with a clear, consistent approach that all Albertans can easily understand and comply with.
"We certainly shouldn't allow political science to be a substitute for public health science."
Kenney said he hopes the amendments to legislation will be introduced in the legislature as early as next week.
'Far-reaching implications,' Sohi says
Edmonton Mayor Amarjeet Sohi called Kenney's announcement "deeply disappointing" and said amending the Municipal Government Act could affect the way the city responds to the pandemic and other city operations.
"This has far-reaching implications," Sohi said during a news conference Tuesday afternoon.
"This overreach of power and abuse of authority under the MCA goes beyond the mask bylaw."
It could restrict the city's autonomy in managing or restricting other activities, things like smoking and traffic bylaws, he said.
Sohi said he's consulting the city's legal department to see what options are available to oppose Kenney's move.
Edmonton's face-covering bylaw was put in place in August 2020, before the province mandated masks in indoor public places.
Near the beginning of the pandemic, Kenney's government encouraged individual municipalities to implement their own mask mandates.
Now, Sohi said, the province is treating the municipalities like children when it should be recognizing their efforts.
"Particularly during the pandemic, municipalities in Alberta acted like adults to protect our citizens' well-being and looking after the health and safety of our citizens during these very difficult times. It's about time the province recognizes us as an equal order of government."
Cathy Heron, president of Alberta Municipalities, said Kenney's announcement is cause for concern
"Alberta Municipalities finds the provincial government's 'top-down' approach to be heavy-handed and unnecessary," Heron said in a news release Tuesday.
The idea of amending the MGA was never formally discussed with Alberta Municipalities, she added.
Potential Charter challenge
University of Alberta law professor, Eric Adams, said Kenney is leaning in the opposite direction of the traditional conservative government that tends to support local decision-making.
"They certainly feel that way about federal regulation over provincial matters," he said. "So it's a bit curious in that respect."
Adams said it'll be up to voters to decide whether this is a good direction for the UCP.
"We see the rather remarkable moment of a conservative government saying that local governments and diversity is now bad."
Adams said the city could consider challenging the move under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
"By taking away a power that cities have to keep their citizens safe, are you effectively at the provincial level making cities less safe? That's a question that may receive some constitutional attention in the months to follow," he said.
Nearly all pandemic public health measures were lifted in the province as of Tuesday, as the Alberta government launched Step 2 of its reopening plan.
On Saturday, Kenney announced that the phased approach to further lift restrictions — and adopt an endemic approach to COVID-19 — would go ahead as planned.
Remaining school requirements, including cohorting, have been lifted, along with youth screening for entertainment and sports.
Capacity limits on all large venues and entertainment venues, limits on indoor and outdoor gatherings and a mandatory work-from-home mandate have all been removed.
"We cannot live forever in fear and we are social beings," Kenney said.
"We are made to encounter one another, to see each other's faces, to smile, to embrace our family and friends, to regain the social lives that we have been so deeply impaired for the past two years and that is exactly what this plan allows us to do."
While the provincial mask mandate has been removed, face coverings are still required in some high-risk settings, including at Alberta Health Services facilities and continuing care sites, and on public transit.
Kenney has said the province is working toward a third stage of its reopening plan where people would no longer be required to isolate if they have COVID-19. That step would also see the lifting of COVID operational and outbreak protocols in continuing care facilities.
The province is reviewing issues around the "waning protection of vaccines," the growing transmissibility of COVID-19, and the cost and inaccuracy of rapid antigen tests, Kenney said.
"We need to address the workforce challenges that we are facing, particularly in nursing homes and some rural hospitals in under-vaccinated areas, given that there is no longer a compelling policy rationale for proof of vaccination programs," he said.
There is no set date for Step 3 but Kenney has said each stage is contingent on hospitalization trends.
Provincial data shows non-ICU hospitalizations have been generally declining for over two weeks, while the number of ICU admissions has dropped.
"This does not mean that COVID-19 is not still a concern in Alberta," Health Minister Jason Copping said. "We will continue to monitor the impact of the virus and any other variants that make their way into our province.
"We will have to adjust to assessing risks and making decisions that are best for us and our families."
On Tuesday, the province reported 1,225 people were in hospital with COVID-19, including 80 in ICU. Both numbers were largely unchanged from the previous day's update. The province also reported an estimated 500 new cases of COVID-19.
Due to technical issues the province did not provide a full COVID data update and did not report the number of deaths or the positivity rate. A full update is expected on Wednesday.