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Premier Jason Kenney, seen here on Aug. 7, 2019, argues Alberta managed the first months of the pandemic well without micromanaging people’s lives.

JASON FRANSON/The Canadian Press

Alberta is resisting calls to make masks mandatory despite the rush of new COVID-19 cases in the province, instead leaving it to municipal lawmakers to make their own rules, while touting the economic benefits of face coverings in an effort to persuade citizens to voluntarily don protective gear in public places.

Premier Jason Kenney argues Alberta managed the first months of the pandemic well without micromanaging people’s lives. But while he shies away from legislating masks, he has repeatedly warned that if residents shun face coverings and a second wave washes over the province, the government will have to shut down the economy again. With the province standing on the sidelines, the possibility of mandatory masks is up to municipal politicians.

Calgary council on Tuesday voted in favour of making masks mandatory in indoor public places and on transit when physical barriers are absent in order to control the spread of the coronavirus. The bylaw, which passed 12-3, will take effect in August. Councillors, some of whom expressed concern over the surge in COVID-19 cases in the city, also instructed administration to refine the bylaw in the coming weeks.

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Roughly three-quarters of Calgarians support making masks mandatory in public and confined spaces, but only 34 per cent of residents regularly wear face covering in these circumstances, according to a survey administration presented to council. Edmonton rejected calls for masks on transit earlier this month.

While the debate over masks in Alberta has not created a deep partisan divide like it has in the United States, Canadian leaders are leaning on their political playbooks to get citizens on board. Calgary politicians who favour mandatory masks to curb the spread echo Mr. Kenney’s economic arguments, an appealing strategy in Alberta.

“I truly believe that business cannot stand to be shut down again in this city,” councillor Diane Colley-Urquhart said at the meeting.

Few jurisdictions in Canada have adopted mandatory masking rules. Toronto, Ottawa and Hamilton have passed similar legislation.

Mr. Kenney’s strategy to frame the debate as an economic one aligns with his government’s worldview. He is also trying to reshape the argument put forward by protesters that wearing masks infringes on freedoms.

“My pitch to those folks, if they are upset about mask usage, then the alternative will inevitably be more widespread suspensions of economic activity if we get a second outbreak,” Mr. Kenney said Saturday. “The responsible exercise of personal freedom through mask usage, where people cannot physically distance, is a lot better alternative than suspending businesses or social activity.”

Alberta is giving away 40 million non-medical masks to residents, and Mr. Kenney has urged people to normalize their use.

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Vanessa Meier-Stephenson, an infectious diseases specialist at the University of Calgary, said the evidence that masks prevent the coronavirus from spreading is weak, but it does favour covering mouths and noses when in public. The shaky science has dragged on the debate, but Dr. Meier-Stephenson believes it should not be dismissed.

“The bottom line is any area between you and another person who is infected is one extra layer to prevent virus from reaching [you],” she said. “Even if it is not perfect … it may be enough to prevent infection.”

Trina Larsen Soles, a doctor in Golden, British Columbia, said the debate around masking got sidetracked when people focused on the procedures doctors must follow when donning personal protective equipment. While those steps are strict, and the general public would unlikely be able to adhere to them, they should not derail widespread masking in public.

“All we’re asking people to do is cover their face when they go into a business so they don’t spray droplets all over the place,” she said. “You don’t have to be perfect to do that. It is not like you’re gowning up to do surgery or intubate somebody in the emergency room.”

We have a weekly Western Canada newsletter written by our B.C. and Alberta bureau chiefs, providing a comprehensive package of the news you need to know about the region and its place in the issues facing Canada. Sign up today.

We have a weekly Western Canada newsletter written by our B.C. and Alberta bureau chiefs, providing a comprehensive package of the news you need to know about the region and its place in the issues facing Canada. Sign up today.

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