Businesses in rural Alberta prep for new COVID-19 rules after months without mask mandate

Before Tuesday, Alberta was the only province without a COVID-19 mask mandate in place. Premier Jason Kenney had said two weeks ago that one reason for the delay was he believed rural areas would not be open to following such a rule.

But now, with new rules in place province-wide, all Albertans must wear masks in indoor public spaces, places of worship and indoor workplaces.

READ MORE: Alberta’s new COVID-19 measures ban in-person dining; retail to remain open

Click to play video 'Alberta premier rejects criticism he waited too long to impose restrictions' Alberta premier rejects criticism he waited too long to impose restrictions

Alberta premier rejects criticism he waited too long to impose restrictions

“As we’ve said since the beginning, masks can be an effective tool in reducing transmission,” Kenney said Tuesday.

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“The vast majority of Albertans have done the responsible thing through voluntary use of face coverings and we see that increasingly across the province. But we are at a point where everyone has a civic duty to do their part.”

The mask mandate took effect immediately after it was announced.

Click to play video 'Kenney says regional approach to COVID-19 is ‘not a viable option right now’' Kenney says regional approach to COVID-19 is ‘not a viable option right now’

Kenney says regional approach to COVID-19 is ‘not a viable option right now’

Other measures including the provincial closure of restaurants and other businesses like libraries, entertainment venues, gyms, and personal care services, will go into place Dec. 13 at midnight.

However, while many businesses, even in rural Alberta, had been mandating masks already, the COVID-19 case counts are so low in some regions there are questions about why the closures are so far reaching.

For example, in the Town of Whitecourt, there have been very few cases — currently only seven that are active — and not a single case recorded in surrounding Woodlands County.

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Click to play video 'Hinshaw warns rural Alberta that COVID-19 is not a Calgary or Edmonton problem' Hinshaw warns rural Alberta that COVID-19 is not a Calgary or Edmonton problem

Hinshaw warns rural Alberta that COVID-19 is not a Calgary or Edmonton problem

Maryann Chichak, the town’s mayor, said that while Whitecourt approved its own mask bylaw on Nov. 16, she understands the questions some residents have about why more rural areas and small towns need to be included in the closures.

“From the municipality’s perspective, we want to contain it in our community,” Chichak said.

“We want to ensure that further measures aren’t taken that are going to have a further detrimental effect on our community.”

On Nov. 25, one day after the previous round of measures were announced, Kenney said during a Facebook live event that he believed some rural Albertans would not follow a provincial mask mandate if it were put into place.

“Imagine you’ve got a couple of guys working in a big barn, way up in the MD of Opportunity — hundreds of kilometres away from the closest COVID hot zone,” Kenney said.

“Do you really think those guys are going to put on a mask because I asked them to or tell them to? Do you think the RCMP is going to go up there and write a ticket if they’re not?”

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Farm operations are exempt from the mask rules announced Tuesday.

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Nenshi asks COVID-19 protestors to ‘stop being so frickin’ self-indulgent’

Before the provincial mandate, which is now in effect, it was up to local municipalities to implement their own mask rules — and while many enacted bylaws, some had voted against putting them in place.

However, Chichak said that she believes many rural communities had already stepped up when it came to masks.

“Way before we brought in our mask bylaw… we had businesses protecting their employees with masks. We had a lot of our own residents who wore masks in the community.”

Read more: Alberta to begin coronavirus vaccine rollout next Wednesday as 1,460 new cases of COVID-19 reported

Kenney had previously said the reason for holding off on the mask mandate was also because there was “no significant case spread” in many rural areas.

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“We have about a hundred hospitals in Alberta,” he said. “Two thirds of them do not have a single COVID case, and those would tend to be in the more remote areas, in rural hospitals.”

The majority of the current COVID-19 cases in Alberta are in the metro regions. As of Wednesday, there were 20,199 active cases, 7,490 in the Calgary zone and 9,289 in the Edmonton zone. Together, that means 83 per cent of all current cases are in those two zones.

Click to play video '‘Get a grip’: Premier Jason Kenney tells anti-maskers to stay home if they won’t wear a mask when required' ‘Get a grip’: Premier Jason Kenney tells anti-maskers to stay home if they won’t wear a mask when required

‘Get a grip’: Premier Jason Kenney tells anti-maskers to stay home if they won’t wear a mask when required

Other rules that now affect all Alberta

Also before Tuesday, some other restrictions — like ones around places of worship — were focused only on the Edmonton and Calgary areas, as well as some in enhanced areas.

While indoor social gatherings were restricted in all parts of the province in the measures announced Nov. 24 and put into place Nov. 27, places of worship, reduced to one-third of their normal attendance in Calgary, Edmonton and enhanced zones, did not have that rule provincially.

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In some areas, places of worship were still allowed to operate with no cap, but with strict distancing and sanitizing rules. 

Now, when the new rules come into place on Dec. 13, all places of worship in the province must operate at 15 per cent of their fire code occupancies.

Previously, increased closure rules and liquor sale cutoffs for restaurants and pubs were also not province-wide, however, now those businesses will fully close across Alberta.

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