Mandatory mask bylaw passes in PR

The Town of Peace River debated a mandatory mask bylaw at a special meeting of council. The bylaw passed and is now in effect due to high cases in the region.

Susan Thompson
South Peace News

The Town of Peace River has passed a mask bylaw after two special meetings of council.

Council previously discussed masks at a governance and priorities meeting where they could not make motions, but decided after discussion to focus on a public education campaign.

Coronavirus cases have since risen to 43 in the area, prompting council to meet to consider a draft bylaw.

After adding some minor changes the bylaw passed first and second reading Nov. 16. Councillor Orren Ford then delayed third reading to get more input from the public on the contentious issue.

A public survey on masks reviewed by council in September had already received more responses than any survey the Town has conducted in the last decade, with the responses of 2,821 people showing a deep divide on whether to mandate masks.

With cases rising steeply across Alberta, Peace River residents led by Jo Boutet organized a letter and phone call campaign to contact councillors and express support for a bylaw.

“Honestly, I just started a Facebook group. The big work was done by the strong writers [and all the little writers too],” Boutet says.

One of those who wrote council was Tony Nickonchuk, a local pharmacist who has gone viral and been widely quoted for his visual graphs of coronavirus deaths.

Nickonchuk previously declined to present to council on masks, but says he has since changed his mind due to the evidence he has seen that they help.

In his letter, he writes, “At the time, my thorough analysis of the data suggested that spread was reasonably well controlled and that masks were not warranted. Nor did I feel that the weight of scientific evidence supported the effectiveness of community mask mandates in reducing spread.”

He adds he has since changed his mind for two reasons.

“First, the spread in the province is very different than it was even two months ago. It is out of control, contact tracing has broken down, and there is a concurrent rise in hospitalizations, ICU admissions, and deaths.

“Second, a study was recently published that finally looked at mask mandates in the Canadian context. They analyzed the implementation of mask mandates in Ontario’s 34 health regions and found that, accounting for other variables that could potentially explain the effect, mask mandates reduced cases in the following two weeks by roughly 25 per cent.”

Nikonchuk adds it seems like a small amount.

“But we know that each positive case is not the only person impacted. Their close contacts have to isolate, and the families of their close contacts often have to isolate as well. We have already seen the significant disruption that can cause daily life in our community,” Nickonchuk writes.

“Not only does it have a negative impact on our quality of life, it is terrible for businesses in this town as well, who face the challenge of fewer customers and unpredictable staffing. Based on percentages to date, 25 per cent fewer total cases in Alberta since COVID first arrived in March would mean 336 fewer hospitalizations, 66 fewer ICU admissions, and 103 fewer deaths.”

Nickonchuk, Boutet and others in favour of the bylaw specifically targeted Ford after Monday’s meeting to ask him to vote yes on final reading of the bylaw.

“I want to thank the public for all of their responses. I read all those e-mails and I did get a couple of e-mails that actually answered my question from Nov. 16 and that was about the change that we made in the bylaw,” says Ford.

That change was to make it so the bylaw didn’t stop being in effect immediately after case counts dropped below 10 in Peace River, but instead to keep the bylaw in effect until case counts remained below 10 for two weeks.

After meeting again Nov. 18, council passed the bylaw unanimously.

Mayor Tom Tarpey, who has been an advocate of a masking bylaw throughout discussions, says, “The primary reason for bringing the bylaw forward is we are trying to protect particularly small businesses from being closed during a possible lockdown, and also to protect members of the public who have taken all the proper measures to avoid contracting COVID and require some degree of safety to be able to shop in some of our local stores.”

Tarpey adds many of those individuals are in vulnerable populations due to age or having family members who are immunocompro- mised.

“While I know there are members of our community who don’t believe in COVID, I can assure you that COVID believes in you, and if you’re not careful you may very well contract COVID.”

He says the current provincial statistics are that out of every 1,000 symptomatic cases 36 can expect to be hospitalized, and 11 may die.

“So it’s not a laughing matter,” Tarpey says.

Boutet says the new bylaw is an important measure to protect us all against COVID-19 and she’s grateful to councillors.

“We appreciate that you did the work that should have been done by the province,” she says.

At press time, Alberta remained the only province not to have a provincial mask mandate, instead choosing to allow municipalities to make the decision.

“You were under a lot of pressure to make a decision about something that has become an unnecessarily divisive issue,” Boutet says to councillors.

“You showed courage and leadership [finally]. All of us who understand the importance of masking along with other measures will feel much better about going shopping again in our local stores and markets, in preparation for a Christmas that could include family and friends if we all work together now to bring down the numbers.”

Nikonchuk agrees.

“Overall, I’m happy it was unanimous because it adds strength to the bylaw, in my opinion, and is an important show of unity,” Nickonchuk says.

“I’m also really impressed with how Orren [Ford] handled and responded to my questions and particularly impressed that he thought to call me personally right after the vote.”

Bob Blayone, who has been at the forefront of protests and arguments against lockdowns and masking, and doesn’t believe science backs their effectiveness, says he is not surprised the bylaw passed, and attributes it to an “emotionally biased/compromised council.”

The bylaw allows exemptions for those with medical conditions without needing proof and for children under five years old. While businesses are required to post signage they are not expected to enforce the bylaw. Peace River has its own bylaw officers and businesses can also call RCMP or 911 as needed.

The bylaw also makes it an offence to harass anyone for either wearing or not wearing a mask.

The mask bylaw is now in effect and will remain in effect until 14 days after regional case numbers drop below 10 active cases.

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