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Calgary mandatory mask rules set for vote today

UPDATE: Calgary city council approves masks for public vehicles, public indoor spaces.

It’s expected Calgary city council will vote on recommendations today to deliver a mandate for mask use to help stop the spread of COVID-19.

The recommendations for the masks is based on suggestions from Alberta Health and the World Health organization. It’s to slow the spread of the virus when physical distancing can’t be maintained.

Other cities in Canada have passed mandatory mask rules. Toronto enacted their rules July 7.

The recommendations

If the measure is passed it would mandate face coverings on all Calgary Transit vehicles starting August 1. Further, a policy for masks in all indoor city-owned or operated properties is being developed. It also includes a report in September with strategies for managing a second wave and implementing a city-wide mask bylaw.

Transit was highlighted as a first step because administration wanted to address something of immediate concern. They could move into other areas from there, if necessary.

Transit ridership in increasing and Calgary transit is carrying 25 per cent of normal ridership, up from 10 per cent in early April.

According to research from city administration, 63 per cent of transit riders said they would feel safer on transit with mandatory face coverings.

On Monday, city councillors and administration heard from Calgary Emergency Management Agency (CEMA) chief Tom Sampson, and Dr. Raj Bhardwaj.

A phased and purposeful approach in mandating the coverings in indoor public spaces allows to maintain the health and safety of Calgarians and keep the economy open, said Sampson.

The transmission of the virus has increased in the city, and the transmission rate has doubled.

“This is the first time since mid April that we’ve seen values this high,” said Sampson.  

People aged 20 to 39 now make up the majority of active cases in the city. Sampson said a few months ago, the province had to track six people for every person who had COVID, but the number for contact tracing has gone up to 20.

“We’ve been working to communicate to Calgarians that preventing the spread of COVID-19 is a shared responsibility,” said Sampson.

Masks should complement but not replace other methods, administration said.

Evidence for masks

Dr. Bhardwaj said that according to emerging evidence, face coverings have been shown to reduce the amount of virus one breathes in from other people.

He said that the notion that wearing a mask mostly protects other people and not the person wearing is not the case.

“That’s not true anymore. My mask does protect me, and it protects you,” he said.

When there’s a critical mass of people wearing masks, the infection rate drops. Even with strong recommendations, only 34 per cent of Calgarians say they wear face coverings in public. That number needs to go up to 80 per cent, said Bhardwaj.

While physical distancing is one of the strongest tools to prevent the spread, people are returning to their busy lives after reopening. In some cases, it is impossible to maintain social distancing.

“If we want to gain control of this infection… we should use all the tools available to us, not leave one tool on the shelf unused,” Bhardwaj said.

“We need to act quickly, broadly, or we will be chasing this for a long, long time.”

Research has indicated that mandating face coverings will likely increase meaningful usage. The number of people who report wearing masks increased, and it has had a significant impact on health outcomes.

He said we have to accept this small limitation if we want to continue with most of our normal lives.

“If masks help us to not lock down again, I think that’s pretty compelling,” Bhardwaj said.

The reason there’s not a provincial mask mandate is that some communities in Alberta probably have very few cases, said Bhardwaj. It would be unreasonable to those communities to be bound by a province-wide law.

Mandating the masks

Transit general manager Doug Morgan said they will use passive enforcement with a customer service approach if masks are mandated.

Peace officers would be on the system, but they will not be armed with a ticket book.

“They will have a series of masks as a friendly reminder for Calgarians who are riding transit to wear masks,” he said.

As for how long we would have to keep masks on, Bhardwaj said it depends on the numbers.

All it takes is one little spark to turn this from a smoldering fire into an absolute wildfire, he said.

“As we wear masks or make masking mandatory, we make it less likely that those sparks will catch and that the fire will go out of control,” Bhardwaj said.