Alberta’s municipal politicians, who are in the midst of their own election campaigns, are once again making decisions governing public health, such as mask mandates and vaccine-related regulations, in the face of what they say is a provincial government that is doing little to respond to a fourth wave of COVID-19.
Edmonton city council voted in favour of reviving its masking bylaw earlier this week, while Calgary’s Emergency Management Committee will debate safety protocols Friday. Councillors with Strathcona County approved a mask bylaw on Thursday, which takes effect on Sept. 19, while politicians in Lethbridge will consider stricter COVID-19 mitigation measures next week.
Alberta’s school boards are also implementing their own rules, meaning policies can vary not only across the province but within communities. Meanwhile, private companies, sports associations, and entertainment venues are producing their own policies, including requiring vaccines in some circumstances, in the absence of overarching guidance.
Premier Jason Kenney is increasingly isolated in his government’s approach to letting the pandemic continue unchecked. British Columbia, Manitoba, Ontario, and Quebec have all announced plans to prevent unvaccinated citizens from accessing non-essential services. B.C. has also responded to spiking cases by reimposing public-health measures such as mandatory masks.
In Alberta, municipal politicians argue their provincial counterparts are abdicating responsibilities, putting people in danger. And by downloading these contentious decisions to others, the governing United Conservative Party is avoiding political consequences, according to frustrated local leaders.
“Municipal governments are not elected to manage public-health issues,” Canmore Mayor John Borrowman said. “We simply don’t have the resources.”
Public health does not fall under municipal jurisdiction. Places such as Canmore rely on the advice and expertise of provincial health officials, but it is difficult to judge whether those pandemic positions have been influenced by politics, he said.
When provincial politicians argue local leaders best understand what their communities need in order to cope with the pandemic, Mr. Borrowman thinks what they really mean is: “We know this is a difficult decision, and we’ll get pushback and [there could be] consequences, perhaps at the next poll, so we’d rather that that heat be felt at a different level of government.”
Alberta counted 465 people in hospital with COVID-19 on Aug. 31, up from 137 COVID-19 patients on Aug. 9, when Mr. Kenney last appeared in public.
Earlier in the pandemic, the Premier chastised municipal politicians who implemented restrictions stricter than the provincial rules, questioning why others believed they knew more about managing infections than Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer of Health. But last month Education Minister Adriana LaGrange said school boards were free to exceed provincial restrictions. And on Tuesday, when asked whether province-wide rules would provide greater economic stability, Alberta Finance Minister Travis Toews pointed to mask mandates from Edmonton and some school boards as evidence of action.
“We’ve made a decision to allow school boards and regional authorities to make decisions based on their own region and the challenges in their region, and be accountable, then of course, to their constituents for those decisions,” he told reporters.
Chris Spearman is the Mayor of Lethbridge, a mid-sized city in Alberta with a vaccination rate that outpaces those in adjacent counties. He is sponsoring a resolution that would make masks mandatory at city-owned facilities.
“We wish there was more leadership from the province,” said Mr. Spearman, who is not running for re-election. “We’re being put in a difficult position as cities.”
Lethbridge is divided into three parts, and in the community with the lowest immunization rate, still 78.6 per cent of residents over 12 have received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine. But Lethbridge is a hub city in southern Alberta, and its neighbours have not embraced COVID-19 mitigation measures with the same enthusiasm. The vaccination rate for those over 12 drops to 60 per cent in the County of Lethbridge and 69.8 per cent in Cardston-Kainai.
“The lack of leadership is potentially putting our citizens at risk,” Mr. Spearman said.
Jyoti Gondek, a Calgary councillor who is running for mayor, believes the UCP is foisting issues such as masking and vaccine requirements on municipal politicians in order to influence the local elections.
“There’s people running in this municipal election that are scared of making the proper decision in the interest of Calgarians because they are worried it will cost them the election,” she said.
Ms. Gondek favours rewarding citizens for getting the vaccine and holding those who do not “accountable,” perhaps by banning them from certain services and facilities or subjecting them to rapid tests.
Jeromy Farkas, another councillor running for mayor, said that he does not support Calgary legislating personal health decisions, and that the city should not meddle in policy outside its jurisdiction. However, Mr. Kenney and Dr. Hinshaw have created a vacuum of information, he added.
“The province has been too quiet on this issue. People are scared.”
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