Calgary will continue with its temporary mandatory mask bylaw until further notice despite questions on efficacy in reducing COVID-19 cases.
Councillors voted in favour of continuing the mandatory mask bylaw, as they received an update from city administration on key indicators of the adoption among Calgarians.
City information showed in a snapshot survey of 500 Calgarians that 88 per cent support the ongoing mask bylaw. Further, in the survey, conducted from Aug. 18 to 25, 89 per cent of respondents said they wore a face covering in public.
Calgary Transit said they have a compliance rate of 95 among their clients.
Despite the mandatory mask bylaw having been in place since Aug. 1, cases in Calgary and area have remained stubbornly high – but steady. Hospitalizations and cases in intensive care have also remained steady.
“The reality is we may be on that roller coaster for some time,” said Calgary Emergency Management Agency’s Chief Tom Sampson.
Even when there was a steep drop in cases, it couldn’t directly be attributed to masking Calgarians, said Chief Sampson.
“They’re not a silver bullet, or a panacea that will solve all our problems. They must be considered in the context of all other collective actions including avoiding gatherings and closed spaces, maintaining those two meters, good hand hygiene and other protective measures,” he said.
Questions on how the efficacy of masks
Coun. Jeromy Farkas asked about how this could be a more evidence-based decision, requiring certain metrics to determine if the bylaw should continue.
“I just want to know: Is this face covering bylaw working? And if so, to what magnitude?” Coun. Farkas asked.
Chief Sampson said he’s lost sleep over trying to figure out the right answer, because there isn’t one. It’s an evolving situation.
“It’s not as clear as we’d like it to be and there’s so many confounding factors that it’s hard to have a double blinded randomized clinical trial, which of course is what most people want in medicine to definitively say this if I wear mask,” Chief Sampson said.
Coun. Jyoti Gondek went as far as to suggest that much of what we’re hearing is anecdotal – including positive impacts on the economy.
“Most of the stuff we’re doing is trusting our gut, one way or the other,” she said.
“And for every set of facts that’s out there that saying masks do nothing or they’re dangerous. There’s an equal number of facts that are saying masks are the greatest thing.”
Chief Sampson said that the world’s largest health organizations, including the World Health Organization, the US Center for Disease Control, Public Health Agency of Canada all agree that masks are a good idea. Alberta Health and Alberta Health Services also agree.
“This isn’t my gut. As an experienced emergency manager, this is a good idea,” Sampson said.
“This is based on the best advice that we can find for you right now. And if we find better advice, I assure you, I’ll be the first knocking on council’s door to change things.”
Focus on Calgary’s economy
Much of the support around the continued bylaw didn’t focus as much on health as it did on the economy. Many councillors said, in one way or another, that Calgary’s business community couldn’t withstand a further lockdown.
Coun. Jeff Davison said that survey results show people are more willing to go out into the public with a mandatory mask bylaw in place.
“If masks, while not a perfect solution – we’re not pretending they are – give people the confidence to go out and spend money, I think that’s an incredibly good thing for everyone at this critical time in our economy,” Davison said.
“I certainly support the continuation of the temporary mass coverings bylaw, because I think we have to do everything in our power right now to keep the economy going.
This sentiment was shared by several on council.
Ultimately, council voted 11-3 to extend the mandatory mask bylaw. Couns. Chu, Magliocca and Farkas voted against the extension.
City criteria for the repeal of the mandatory mask bylaw
Several questions came up around how the city would determine a repeal of the bylaw.
“It is important for Calgarians to understand when the bylaw may be repealed. Determining a specific date or matrix target does not allow the flexibility that is required to respond to local changing priorities, the evolving nature of the virus, or new evidence with regard to face coverings,” said Kay Choi, Manager, Strategic Services, Calgary Community Standards.
The city later released this information on criteria for repeal.
• Local metrics, including transmission rates (reproductive value), infections, hospitalizations, patients in intensive care, and deaths are at a sufficiently low level that medical experts agree that face coverings are no longer a recommended tool in mitigating the spread of the virus.
• A safe and effective vaccine has seen sufficient local levels of uptake, or a safe and effective treatment has been identified, such that medical experts agree that face coverings are no longer recommended in in mitigating the spread of the virus.
• Medical experts, including Alberta Health Services, the Public Health Agency of Canada, and the World Health Organization retract their messaging on the use of face coverings, based on evidence, in mitigating the spread of COVID-19.
Administration will report back in December with an update, or earlier should circumstances change.