As some Canadian communities mandate the use of masks in public spaces due to the pandemic, Kamloops continues to follow the lead of provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, who has not made face coverings a requirement in British Columbia and said on Thursday she has no imminent plans to do so.
“In B.C., we have a very good public health officer who has really guided all of us very, very well,” Coun. Arjun Singh said, favouring a provincial approach over different rules community by community. “It’s too confusing for folks, if there’s too many different guidelines.”
Henry has encouraged the use of masks at times when physical distancing is not possible, but has not mandated their use. At the July 23 COVID-19 update press conference, Henry said she has no plans to follow Quebec’s lead after that province became the first in Canada to make mask-wearing mandatory in all public indoor spaces. Henry said while wearing a mask is encouraged if physical distancing cannot be accomplished, it is the least effective of the ways health officials are asking people to take precautions.
Cities in Canada, however, have taken ownership of the issue by mandating masks through bylaws. This week, Calgary city council passed a temporary bylaw requiring people to wear face coverings in all indoor public premises and in all public vehicles, effective Aug. 1. The order includes city buildings, transit vehicles and stores, but excludes schools. Edmonton is doing likewise.
City of Kamloops acting CAO Byron McCorkell said that unlike Calgary, Kamloops does not have the authority to mandate masks in all public places, as it is outside of its jurisdiction. He said the only place the municipality can mandate mask-wearing is within city buildings, such as the Tournament Capital Centre and city hall.
Requirement to wear masks on transit buses would need to come from BC Transit. Requirement to wear masks in places like grocery stores would have to come from the province.
“The only bylaw that council could enact would be to say in any of the buildings we own and operate, we want to have public masks,” McCorkell said. “Council has not suggested that because, as I said before, our operating mandate to this point is to listen to Dr. Bonnie Henry and do whatever we’re being told to do.”
Asked if the city should follow Calgary’s lead by mandating masks where it can, Coun. Dale Bass — who is deputy mayor while Mayor Ken Christian is away — said she would like to have a discussion about the issue and she anticipates one at council’s next meeting, on Aug. 11.
Bass said she has heard concerns from the public about travelling on city buses. Specifically, she has heard from seniors, who are particularly vulnerable to the novel coronavirus. During last week’s city council meeting, Bass raised the issue with BC Transit during discussion about transit planning and BC Transit deferred to Henry’s direction on the matter.
In addition to hearing concerns from the public, Bass also has a personal connection to the issue. Having had cancer and living with an auto-immune disease, she is also vulnerable to the virus.
“I would like to have that conversation and, because some councillors have been asking as well, I think we will have that conversation,” she said.
Advice around mask-wearing has changed over time in Canada during the pandemic and the issue has also become politicized, particularly in the United States. Health experts say wearing a mask can protect others from contracting COVID-19 in containing a person’s droplets, which spread the virus. Those opposed to wearing a mask, however, argue such orders are an infringement on one’s rights. Many also report wearing a mask feels weird.
Some city councillors and Thompson-Nicola Regional District directors have been wearing masks to public meetings. Coun. Kathy Sinclair has been wearing a mask and recently changed her Facebook profile to a photo of her wearing a face covering. Councillors have also posted about the issue online.
Sinclair said as the city continues to follow the province’s lead, she is modelling good behaviour — meeting outside, practising physical distancing and wearing a mask. She said she believes wearing a mask indoors is “important.” Bass and Singh have also been wearing masks at city meetings and Singh said he has noticed most people in Kamloops wearing one, as encouraged by Henry.
“I was in a grocery store yesterday and most of the folks in there, a good portion of them, were wearing masks,” Singh said. “I think it’s not good to guilt anybody or shame anybody. Everybody has their own reason to do what they’re doing.”
Councillors are keeping tabs on the issue as case numbers in the Interior Health region rise, due to outbreaks in Kelowna around Canada Day. Sinclair said what happens in the next week or two will impact her thoughts about mandating masks in city facilities, while Bass said it may result in Henry issuing such an order.
“I think we’re sort of at a fork in the road,” Sinclair said.
— with a file from Canadian Press