To wear or not to wear:

Masks like these may be be mandatory if Peace River town council proceeds on a proposed bylaw. Public opinion, however, is divided.

Survey shows opinions in Peace River divided

Susan Thompson
South Peace News

The results are in from the Town of Peace River’s survey on requiring masks to help stop the spread of the novel coronavirus.

And they show a deep divide on the issue.

Peace River’s public survey on masks received more responses than any survey the Town has conducted in the last decade, with 2,821 people responding and 1,300 responses in the first 12 hours after the survey was launched. The survey for businesses received 263 responses.

The survey with the next highest number of responses was the rainbow crosswalk review in 2018 with 517 responses.

The 2018 survey on marijuana legalization only received 397 responses.

Town council reviewed the results of their public survey on masks at their Sept. 8 governance and priorities meeting.

Town communications coordinator Autumn Hulme says a key takeaway from the survey is that it’s a contentious topic.

“People have very strong opinions about it on both sides of the issue and it’s pretty much split right down the middle,” she says.

Hulme says it’s clear from survey results that people don’t want to see the Town encourage mask wearing through prizes and giveaways, because some people see it as a waste of government resources and others see it as trivializing a serious issue.

Survey respondents most strongly supported the Town encouraging voluntary mask use.

With all responses including people from outside of town, there was a slight absolute majority that does not support a mask mandate, with support ranging from 36.67 per cent to 38.84 per cent on the relevant survey questions.

Of the responses from only town residents, there is a slight majority support for a mask requirement in businesses [46.75 per cent] and taxis [47.67 per cent] compared to 44.77 per cent who would not support a mask requirement.

If Peace River has enough COVID cases in the future to be listed as needing enhanced measures by the Province, support for masking goes up slightly for all responses, and by more than 10 per cent for just responses from Peace River.

For the town resident only responses, the survey results also show relative majority support of 38.52 per cent for a mask requirement if the town is listed as being in a “Watch” category while in that case blanket opposition sits at 31.66 per cent.

According to the survey, most people in town don’t wear a mask already, and most businesses don’t require them.

“I think in the 30 days my observation has been we’re seeing an uptick in COVID cases,” says Mayor Tom Tarpey.

“The whole idea of asking people to put on masks is to have a number of circuit breakers in the community and it doesn’t really work if people say, ‘Well, don’t bother me but if you want to wear it for my health go ahead.’ That’s a terrible attitude.

“When we didn’t have any COVID cases that was something to be proud of. It enhanced the economic viability of this town,” he adds.

Tarpey says minimizing cases can prevent businesses from having to go through another shutdown.

“By trying to minimize the number of COVID cases we’re also trying to protect small businesses,” he says.

“My feeling is it should be a mandatory effort. The government had predicted a second wave and it’s happening.”

Tarpey says university students coming back into the community are a potential vector, and so are contractors being brought in for shutdowns at major industries in the region.

Tarpey notes Mercer Peace River Pulp has a mandatory mask requirement for its own shutdown, two major retail industries are already asking for masks, and Subway is also asking for masks. Visitors to the hospital also have to take a new mask or be stopped by security.

Tarpey points out North Peace Housing avoided any sicknesses and deaths to date by acting quickly and requiring masks and putting in measures even before the government did.

“They were ahead of the curve,” Tarpey says.

The Mayor recommends a mask bylaw until March 31 as the Province goes through the second wave. However, Tarpey says it’s not just his decision.

Deputy Mayor Elaine Manzer says it’s important to note that most businesses are not currently requiring patrons to wear masks and said in the survey that they are not comfortable enforcing the mask mandate.

“They don’t want to be the big person at the front door and say, ‘No, you can’t go in here’ and have a big argument,” she says.

Tarpey says businesses could potentially call a bylaw officer who could issue a ticket.

“We spent a whole bunch of money hiring two of them so we do have the means to do that.”

Councillor Don Good says businesses have the right to refuse anyone entry so they can also call the police if someone tries to enter the business without permission.

But Good says the Province put in the mask requirement at North Peace Housing.

He says he looks at the numbers and there is no landslide for either side, although he thinks the science on masks shows they do work.

“I’m not comfortable putting a bylaw in place to force people to wear a mask right now,” Good says.

Good says it’s an abdication of responsibility by the Province not to mandate masks, but he expects a clampdown from the Province if numbers skyrocket.

Meanwhile, he adds, “Most people I think are pretty sensible, and I have faith in them.”

Councillor Byron Schamehorn says the enforcement of any mask bylaw could be “an absolute nightmare” and asks where the Town would be drawing the line.

“We would give officers discretion and they would probably only do it when it’s pretty blatant,” Tarpey says.

Councillor Orren Ford says he is not in favour of a mandatory mask bylaw.

“I’m regional on this so if Peace River does a bylaw then everyone around us should be doing the same thing.”

Ford says the Province already has the power to require masking if cases in the north spike. However, Ford says he does support education on masks and promoting voluntary masking.

The issue of the Town’s potential liability and need to provide a safe work environment for employees was also raised.

Tanya Bell from Community Services says some Town facilities are already having some challenges in maintaining counts on the number of people in the facility, and requesting masks would require more from the frontline staff who would need tools to enforce them.

“It can place our staff in another adverse situation where they are dealing with individuals who are not in favour of the masking and that can be a challenge for our frontline staff to manage,” she says.

Other policies to address the potential dangers from more benign yelling and cheering for sports, which can spread droplets, have already been put in place at the Baytex Energy Centre.

While administration asked council if they wanted to move forward with a motion on a bylaw, launch a public campaign on masks, or defer any decisions, CAO Chris Parker says education and monitoring the situation are the main priorities.

Administration will bring an update on a program to encourage mask use by Town staff, visitors and residents to the next council meeting.

The survey can be read online at: https://peaceriver.civicweb.net

What the people said

I support a requirement to wear a mask inside a business 38.84%
I support a requirement to wear a mask inside a place of worship 36.67%
I support a reqirement to wear a mask inside a taxi 39.06%
I am uncertain 5.48%
I do not support a requirement to wear a mask inside any public place. 53.86%

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