Norris calls for more urgency on mandating masks on Saskatoon Transit buses

Saskatoon mayoral candidate Rob Norris is questioning the City of Saskatoon's timeline for considering mandatory masks for bus riders.

Mayoral candidate Rob Norris questions city timeline for mulling mandatory masks on buses

Saskatoon mayoral candidate Rob Norris is questioning the City of Saskatoon's timeline for considering mandatory masks for bus ridres. (Chanss Lagaden/CBC)

Saskatoon mayoral candidate Rob Norris is calling on the City of Saskatoon to accelerate its timeline for potentially requiring riders to wear masks on Saskatoon Transit buses. 

"There needs to be a greater sense of urgency," Norris said at a campaign event Wednesday, citing a recent and sustained rebound in COVID-19 cases in the province.

On Monday, health officials announced eight new cases in Saskatoon, one of the highest daily increases for the city since the start of the pandemic. 

That same day, city manager Jeff Jorgenson said the city was evaluating a host of options for mandating masks at city facilities and on its services.

Not all buildings would necessarily require such an approach, Jorgenson said, citing city hall as a place where physical distancing is possible.

Saskatoon Transit is another story, Jorgenson said. 

"I would say in late 2020 or early 2021 we're going to have to turn our attention to transit because [with] transit, you just don't have those same opportunities," he said.

A report on options will go to city councillors in either August or September, he added.

Jorgenson's update came partly in response to a question from councillor Bev Dubois about any plans the city had to mandate masks.

"I have had lots of folks message me and contact me about that and and see if we are looking at doing anything," Dubois said.

Bus use has dropped considerably during the pandemic, according to statistics shared by the city. 

The service saw more than 200,000 weekly riders in early March. In the second week of March — by which time Saskatchewan had recorded its first case of COVID-19 — weekly ridership had decreased to less than 50,000.  

Weekly bus ridership figures for Saskatoon during the pandemic. (City of Saskatoon)

Approach shouldn't take months: Norris

Norris' comments about masking, made on Wednesday in front of the home of a campaign supporter in Saskatoon's Hampton village area, represented a new line of criticism in his campaign.

So far, his attacks have focused personally on Charlie Clark, but his remarks Wednesday struck at the entire city apparatus and its efforts to curb the COVID-19 virus locally.  

"A number of people have said to me, 'Rob, this is of greater priority,'" Norris said of the city's reporting timeline. 

"The word that I hear is 'fear.'"

Norris acknowledged Jorgenson's prioritization of the transit system, but said that he wants the city to immediately get in touch with the office of Dr. Saqib Shahab, Saskatchewan's chief medical health officer, "to take steps within days, maybe a couple of weeks, regarding mandatory masks on our transit system."

"Not months," he said. 

Norris wore a plain mask as he emerged from his supporter's house and removed it while speaking to the media. Clark did the same with his branded "Re-elect Charlie Clark For Mayor" mask during an event earlier in the morning where he confirmed his candidacy for the Nov. 9 mayor's race.

Clark responds 

In response to Norris's comments, Clark said that while the city has the authority to proceed on its own with a mandatory masking policy for buses or other services, he favours a collaborative approach with the province given the challenges involved.

"[It's] not simple in the sense that you need to make sure you have enforcement figured out, you need to make sure that there's enough supply of masks in the community. It's absolutely ideal that any of those kind of steps, especially if it was to be in all public spaces, are done in co-ordination with the province," Clark said.

"If it comes to a point where we have to stray from that, out of necessity we, council, will have to discuss and then decide whether we want to go down that road when it comes to masks."

Clark said he talked to Premier Scott Moe, Government Relations Minister Lori Carr and Regina Mayor Michael Fougere about masking earlier this week, and that city council has already shown it can quickly convene a meeting and adapt swift change if conditions change.

Anthony Tataryn, an assistant chief at the Saskatoon Fire Department, said the city is "awaiting a response, having sought some guidance and advice from the province on mask use."

Pandemic campaigning

At his event Wednesday, Clark said he believes "people are starting to feel increasingly concerned" about the rise in COVID-19 cases.

"I think one of the big reasons is we're heading toward the fall," he said. "People really want to know that we can open schools successfully and people really want to know that we're not going to find ourselves in the same shoes as the U.S. cities that are actually now, after having opened up, closing down."

Saskatoon Mayor Charlie Clark wears a branded mask after announcing his re-election campaign at downtown event on Wednesday. (Chanss Lagaden/CBC)

Both Clark and Norris said campaigning during a pandemic would require a different approach.

"Keeping the community safe will be my number one priority while actually campaigning," Clark said, adding that "we don't have a rule book or a playbook for how to do this."

Norris spoke of an encounter he had in the last month with a woman who was gardening.

"She just said... 'I've just got tested today. We've got some situations going on in our house. [I] really want to have a conversation but it's gonna be at a distance and can you come back in the next day or two,'" Norris said.

"That was just, I thought, a snapshot of how people are doing their best."

About the Author

Guy Quenneville

All-platform journalist for CBC Saskatoon

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