Alberta Premier Jason Kenney is rejecting calls to make masks and face coverings mandatory, arguing that the province can’t enforce its way out of the pandemic.
Calls have been growing to require people to wear masks in public, most recently in an open letter from Canadian doctors and scientists aimed at Alberta health officials. The letter calls for mandatory mask policies in indoor spaces outside the home, in crowds where it’s difficult to physically distance and on public transportation.
While Mr. Kenney said the letter raises an important point, he and Deena Hinshaw, the province’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, decided against compelling people to wear masks.
“We don’t want to end up in a situation where we have police or bylaw officers ticketing people or arresting people for not wearing a face covering,” Mr. Kenney said at a news conference on Friday. “I think the implications of that are just completely problematic.”
Instead, the Premier said the province opted for a “very strong recommendation” for Albertans to wear masks or face shields in public, especially in crowded areas where physical distancing isn’t much of an option, citing mass transit as an example.
Earlier this month, the province started distributing free non-medical masks at drive-through restaurants. Masks were also provided to groups such as long-term care facilities, First Nations and Métis Settlement communities, places of worship and people more than 50 kilometres from a drive-through restaurant.
Dr. Hinshaw said she is encouraging everyone to wear masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19, but added that it’s not clear yet whether something stronger is needed.
“The challenge of deciding whether or not to make something mandatory is determining how strong our recommendations are,” Dr. Hinshaw said. “It’s too early to determine the impact of the recommendation.”
The recent open letter is aimed at Theresa Tam, Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer, and Alberta health officials, including Dr. Hinshaw. It recommends that people with medical contraindications or disabilities, and children under age 2 be exempt.
Joe Vipond, an emergency room doctor in Calgary who signed the letter, said there is evidence that wearing masks has reduced the spread of COVID-19 in other jurisdictions.
Physician Amy Tan said mandatory masks are important as the province reopens the economy.
“Time is of the essence in a pandemic,” Dr. Tan said. “We thought that we really needed to make our case for this because, as we get into Phase 2 when there’s an uptick of cases, we really want to keep the cases down.”
The letter says that fines, arrests or criminal penalties should be minimal, and a mandatory policy should rely on public education to persuade people to wear masks.
“What we’re asking for is education and information about mask access at the community level as ‘enforcement,’” Dr. Tan said. “We want the mandate to create that level of expectation.”
Craig Jenne, an infectious diseases expert at the University of Calgary, said that if people fail to follow public recommendations, especially in situations such as transit, the province may have to consider making masks mandatory.
Transit systems in Toronto, Ottawa, Mississauga and Brampton, Ont., have already enforced masking.
The Alberta Premier said it’s up to the municipalities to require mask use on public transportation, especially once the economy fully reopens and transit becomes more crowded, but the province’s policy is only to strongly encourage it.
“It’s not ... foolproof, and it does not replace all of the other common-sense health measures that folks should take, including frequent hand washing and physical distancing, but it is a useful and effective compliment to those basic health measures,” Mr. Kenney said.
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