Keith Gerein: Debate around Edmonton’s masks succumbs to political opportunism over pragmatism

Article content

If your pandemic experience has been anything like mine, then your collection of face masks from the past couple of years has taken on a motley character.

advertisement 2

Article content

Several have disappeared along the way. I swear my washing machine has eaten at least three.

Those still in circulation have various ailments, like thinning strings, scuffs or lost elasticity. In general, it is a collection of face coverings now variously threadbare, misshapen and losing substance — much like the current state of discourse around masking itself.

As most of you likely know by now, Edmonton on Tuesday became the last city in Alberta to go mask free following city council’s 8-5 decision to repeal its face covering by law.

What may be less known is that council’s vote was a reluctant one at best, more or less coerced by the sledgehammer Of Bill 4, designed to thwart any municipality from adopting COVID-19 restrictions that run counter to provincial government interests.

advertisement 3

Article content

There are strong feelings on all sides of this, so I’ll declare here that I really have no idea whether mandatory masking is still a useful measure.

What I do know is that consequential health issues such as this are ideally determined as much as possible by science and evidence, alongside a reasonable dose of caution. After all, we’ve seen the grim results in Alberta when such factors are ignored.

As to that evidence — at least what little of it the province has been willing to release — it is admittedly a little foggy at the moment, offering nuggets of argument for advocates on both sides of the issue.

I don’t have space to rehash it all here, but will mention a new city survey presented to council Tuesday that garnered some 66,500 responses. The results clearly suggest most Edmontonians want the masks gone. So do most business owners.

advertisement 4

Article content

While governments often have to adopt policies against public wishes, in this case the survey indicates there would be widespread disobedience to an ongoing mask by law. That’s an important factor to consider, as is other evidence.

Unfortunately, what has been dominating the debate to my ears is an appeal to opportunistic politics that has become exhausting.

For city councillors, many of whom have spoken about the need to avoid putting constituents in limbo with COVID policy, it’s difficult to understand why Tuesday’s bylaw decision had to wait a full week after the province dropped its masking rules.

As to the council fivelors who voted not to repeal the face covering by law in spite of Bill 4, this was a symbolic gesture at best that seemed partly motivated by a desire to appear defiant.

advertisement 5

Article content

We also need to remember that council at one time — at least the past council — was adamant that the province take responsibility on setting masking rules for the sake of consistency. Now that they have, albeit for dubious reasons, it seems a little hypocritical to call it out.

That said, the layers of hypocrisy and political opportunism are thicker over at the legislature, which again became evident while listening to the Bill 4 news conference hosted by Municipal Affairs Minister Ric McIver.

McIver is a veteran public official and I’ve generally found him to be among the reasonable, respectable sort, but this news conference was a class in contradictions.

At one point he asserted the legislation was not about politics but rather designed to ensure consistency in public health policy — including for potential future waves. Then he said the bill was actually a “defensive manoeuvre” against Edmonton and hinted that it could be rethought if the city repealed its mask by law.

advertisement 6

Article content

In another moment, he denied allegations from municipal leaders that the bill showed disrespect, but then said this when asked if the government had consulted before municipalities hand.

“I’m not sure I would use the word consult,” McIver said, which might be the most honest thing his government has said about UCP attitudes toward local officials.

Nor could he come up with a good public health reason to explain why the province is no longer cool with local communities setting their own masking policies after two years of saying “we respect their autonomy.”

The truth is, the only thing that’s changed recently is politics. A premier who was once happy to let local communities bear some of the heat for COVID rules is now in need of some punching bags. And municipalities that can be tagged as opponents of freedom fill the role nicely.

Advertisement 7

Article content

Nonetheless, despite the political posturing going on from all sides, an end to mandatory masking is the new reality. My plea to Edmontonians is not to succumb to the divisiveness of our elected officials and instead avoid judgment on those who may approach this issue differently.

This means that if you see someone in a public place continuing to wear a mask, respect that choice given that they or a loved one may have higher risks.

It means showing the same deference to businesses that choose masking to protect their staff and customers.

It means that if someone you have to interact with asks you to put on a mask for a short period of time, consider how little effort it takes to oblige.

While many of us are now putting away masks that are tattered and frayed, our courtesy toward each other need not take on the same character.

[email protected]

advertisement 1


Postmedia is committed to maintaining a lively but civil forum for discussion and encourage all readers to share their views on our articles. Comments may take up to an hour for moderation before appearing on the site. We ask you to keep your comments relevant and respectful. We have enabled email notifications—you will now receive an email if you receive a reply to your comment, there is an update to a comment thread you follow or if a user follows comments. Visit our Community Guidelines for more information and details on how to adjust your e-mail settings.

Leave a Comment