Wearing masks on Yellowknife public transit and in city facilities could become mandatory as soon as August 31.
Last week, city administration presented councillors with a variety of options related to masks during the Covid-19 pandemic. Those ranged from leaving mask-wearing optional through to mandating masks for residents in all indoor public spaces.
On Monday, a majority of councillors said they were in favour of making masks mandatory on public transit and in all city-owned and operated facilities – as long as doing so would allow buses and buildings to increase their capacity.
According to city staff, some Canadian cities increased capacity on public transit by 50 percent after making masks mandatory.
Yellowknife buses are currently restricted to nine riders – something the city says is an issue as schools are set to reopen in two weeks and high-school students rely on public transit.
Senior administrator Sheila Bassi-Kellett said the city had approached the territory’s chief public health officer to ask whether mandating masks would allow the city to open up more bus seats, as well as increase the capacity of other services like the library.
“We’re very hopeful and the preliminary indications that we’ve received are yes,” Bassi-Kellett said on Monday.
If a bylaw making masks mandatory is passed, there will be exemptions for children under the age of two, people who can’t put on or remove a mask without assistance, and people who can’t wear one for mental, physical, or protected human rights reasons.
People will not have to wear a mask when exercising, or while eating and drinking while in a designated seating area.
In places like the city’s arenas, fieldhouse, and public pool, masks would be worn in lobbies, dressing rooms, and by spectators, but not on the ice, track, or in the pool. At restaurants and bars, masks would be worn in lobbies and waiting areas but not while eating and drinking.
According to a sample bylaw from city administration, anyone found not following the mask requirement – without an exemption – would be fined at least $100.
How will the rules be enforced?
Councillors asked how Yellowknife bylaw officers would be able to enforce the rules without clear proof that some people are exempt.
Kerry Penney, the city’s manager of legal services, said other municipalities that mandated masks have been relying on an honour system. She said requiring people to provide a doctor’s note to prove they are exempt poses privacy issues.
A City of Yellowknife photo of the Ruth Inch Memorial Pool.
Some places, like the City of Edmonton, have issued exemption cards without requiring documentation. Edmonton suspended that program just five days after it started, however, over concerns the distribution system could be manipulated.
Bassi-Kellett acknowledged enforcement is a challenging issue and said the City of Yellowknife plans to emphasize communication and education – letting residents know what the rules are and why they should follow them, then using enforcement as a last resort.
“We would not want to start off by blanketing tickets across the city,” she said.
If a bylaw officer does suspect someone without a mask is not exempt, they could issue a ticket and the matter could be challenged in court, Penney said.
‘No scarlet letters’
Councillor Julian Morse questioned whether the city has the authority to mandate masks, expressing concern that some residents could be denied services if they can’t afford a mask or reach a store that sells them.
Under the NWT’s Cities, Towns, and Villages Act, Bassi-Kellett noted, the city can make bylaws for the “safety, health, and welfare of people and the protection of people and property,” including in public places and businesses.
Niels Konge was the only councillor to support making masks mandatory in all indoor public spaces, saying he’s “convinced” that a second wave of Covid-19 is coming to Yellowknife.
“Frankly, I’m not convinced that our local economy can handle being in lockdown again,” he said.
Konge said some business owners have expressed concern about protecting their staff as “there are no scarlet letters” to indicate if someone should be self-isolating.
“Our borders might be closed but they’re not that closed,” he said.
Public shaming concerns
Other councillors raised concerns that passing such a bylaw could lead to public shaming.
“I think it could be something that gets ugly,” Cynthia Mufandaedza said.
“I think we definitely want to avoid a spiral situation where people are turning against each other,” Shauna Morgan added.
Councillors agreed a bylaw should come into effect when school starts, on August 31, and be repealed by council when pandemic restrictions are lifted.
City administrators will now draft a bylaw which councillors will formally vote on at their next regular council meeting on August 24.