As rural COVID-19 cases rise, some leaders look to province for guidance

As COVID-19 cases continue to rise in Alberta’s rural areas, leaders in Smoky Lake County are following provincial guidelines and holding off on a mandatory mask bylaw for now.

Smoky Lake County has highest number of cases per capita in Alberta, with 63 active cases

Brian and Leesa Jones, who own the Smoky Lake Inn and other local businesses, support a provide-wide mandatory mask law. (Brian Jones)

Leaders in Smoky Lake County are following provincial guidelines and holding off on a mandatory mask bylaw for now, as COVID-19 cases continue to rise in Alberta's rural areas.

There are 63 active cases of COVID-19 in the Smoky Lake County area as of Friday, according to Alberta Health Services (AHS). 

The county, located about 115 kilometres northeast of Edmonton, has the highest caseload per capita in the province, with a rate of 748 cases per 100,000 people. 

"We've taken that very, very seriously," said Smoky Lake County CAO, Gene Sobolewski in a recent interview.

Neighbouring communities are included in the county's tally, making it hard to pinpoint where the cases are located, Sobolewski said.

The area is on the province's elevated status list, meaning that mandatory restrictions have gone into effect, including a 15-person limit on social gatherings. 

Council is enforcing the provincial restrictions but hasn't put a mandatory mask bylaw in place, Sobolewski said.

"The province hasn't deemed it to be necessary. It is something that would be difficult to enforce, given that in the county itself, we're more rural."

Other rural Alberta municipalities and towns are dealing with their own rise in COVID-19 cases.

The Town of Fairview's bylaw requiring masks in public indoor spaces went into effect when the Municipal District of Fairview reached 25 active cases on Nov. 9. 

The mask requirement will be lifted once the total stays under 25 for two weeks, said the town's CAO, Daryl Greenhill. 

As of Friday, the M.D. has 18 cases for its population of 5,061, according to AHS. 

There are no known cases of COVID-19 in the town of Smoky Lake, said Mayor Hank Holowaychuk.

Local authorities are asking residents to do everything in their power to keep it that way, he said.

"We are as a municipality very, very concerned about the well-being of not only our residents and the traveling public, but our senior housing facility."

Smoky Lake has a population of about 1,000 and supports a mobile workforce due to its proximity to Highway 28, a major travel corridor, Holowaychuk said.

"Most people are taking a fairly responsible approach. However, in this day and age, people are traveling for personal reasons or work," he said. "It's always a risk."

Town council hasn't put in place a mandatory mask bylaw, but is distributing masks for residents to wear on a voluntary basis.

Smoky Lake business owner Brian Jones has noticed a recent shift in town.

"I see more people wearing masks, more customers wearing masks now in the last few days," he said. "They're paying attention, I think, but there are nonbelievers". 

Jones and his wife Leesa own and operate the Smoky Lake Inn, the local Super 8, an Esso gas station and a liquor store.

Brian and Leesa Jones require their staff wear masks and adhere to strict cleaning protocols in their liquor store, GoFer Liquor, and other businesses. (Brian Jones)

They've been enforcing strict mask-wearing and sanitizing rules with their staff since the beginning of the pandemic. 

"We have been doing it right from the beginning, just to keep our staff safe and our customers safe," Jones said. "The customers seem good with it. They don't complain."

He supports a province-wide mandatory mask rule, as opposed to a municipal one. 

Otherwise, he said, people who don't want to wear masks will simply do business in another community.

"They're going to go to the next county, and so the businesses are going to suffer," Jones said. 

"If it's province wide, then it doesn't matter. You're still going to have the same traffic coming to your businesses and to your community."

Holowaychuk said the town will consider all options if cases continue to rise, but believes the province is in the best position to mandate rules.

"AHS has far more staff at their disposal to make the right decisions at the right time, in the right place," he said. 

"We're just going to try and follow what they recommend to the public."