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COVID mask controversy grips Innisfail

Coun. Glen Carritt won’t wear mask at council despite staff recommendation
MVP COVID Gary Leith
Gary Leith, Innisfail's manager of fire and protective services, advises town council on Monday, Nov. 16 on the positive COVID case at Innisfail High School. His presentation was followed by a passionate council discussion on what the town should and can do in the community about the escalating global public health crisis. Youtube video screenshot

INNISFAIL- Town council is for now staying with the provincial course in the battle against the escalating COVID-19 pandemic but are members are veering towards introducing a tougher local mask policy that will undoubtedly face determined opposition from anti-mask crusader Coun. Glen Carritt.

In fact, Carritt refused to join his six council colleagues in solidarity at the Nov. 16 Agenda and Priorities meeting by refusing to wear a mask, despite a Nov. 13 email from administration recommending staff and council wear masks while conducting business in the town office, including while attending council meetings. The recommendation was made following the positive COVID test result of a staff member earlier this month.

“The bottom line is that everybody has the right to decide whether they want to wear a mask,” said Carritt in an interview with The Albertan on Nov. 17. “I wear a mask when I go to the Foothills Hospital to visit a friend but I believe it is everybody’s choice to make whether they want to wear a mask or not, and I respect anybody that makes that choice to wear a mask, just as they should respect my choice not to wear a mask and to keep my distance.”

Mayor Jim Romane said that while wearing a mask is a “bit of a pain” and always controversial during these challenging COVID times, he is more than willing to wear them if there is even a “remote” chance they are beneficial in the fight against the pandemic.

“One councillor has chosen to disregard that. I guess we know why he chose to do that but I think we probably will be discussing that further,” said Romane. “Right now, it’s not town policy, hard line, but I know it is going to be addressed by a policy at the next meeting.”

At council's regular meeting on Nov. 23, Romane introduced a notice of motion that effective immediately all council members must wear appropriate masks in the town's administration building until council chambers can be modified to accommodate proper social distancing requirements. As well, the motion directs administration to draft a policy that outlines council and staff expectations for continuous masking and the use of personal protection equipment in the workplace.

The mask issue, along with the current state of the pandemic, was passionately debated by council on Nov. 16 following a presentation by Gary Leith, the town’s manager of fire and protective services.

Leith told council the town’s recent positive COVID case had a significant staff impact. He said three firefighters and nine municipal staff members were either quarantined or in self isolation for 14 days. Todd Becker, the town’s chief administrative officer, said all tested negative for COVID, and all but one would be back to work by Nov. 23.

With the town’s recent positive COVID case, along with a confirmed test result on Nov. 16 at Innisfail High School, several members of town council wanted to know what measures the town could take alongside the province to protect itself from the soaring provincial COVID rates.

Coun. Jean Barclay insisted more communication is needed in town to promote the benefits of preventable measures, such as wearing masks.

“With all this anti-mask rhetoric that is going on there are stats that are showing that by wearing a mask we can reduce the spread by 70 per cent and I would like to see the town do more messaging around that,” said Barclay, adding the City of Red Deer is preparing to pass municipal legislation to bring in stricter mask guidelines. “People think by wearing masks or doing the few non-pharmaceutical things we are asked to do that it (adversely) impacts economic activity. Well, it is the exact opposite.

“When we see the rise in COVID cases, and see the risk rising, people tend to stay home and economic activity declines,” she added. “For us to keep moving our community forward we need to keep the community safe.”

However, Barclay’s passion for the benefits of wearing masks ignited a testy exchange with Carritt when she noted the pandemic situation, particularly with contact tracing, was “spiralling out of control right now”.

“It is a matter of opinion that things are spiralling out of control. That’s what I will say,” said Carritt to Barclay after the latter asked if he was laughing at her comments.

“I think it is important we get our facts, not our opinions from sources,” Barclay shot back. “As elected officials I think it is really important we look at evidence from facts that has been collected by epidemiologists and infectious disease specialists, not somebody from a community of 3,500 people in Maine.”

Carritt ended the exchange by saying he “couldn’t agree more.”

In the meantime, other councillors were left wondering which direction the town should and can take with the pandemic as the province has repeatedly shown an unwillingness to enforce stricter mask guidelines.

“I don’t know to what degree we can enhance education as some people just do not want to listen,” said Coun. Gavin Bates. “They have made up their minds, and until something happens to someone close to them, I don’t think they will listen.

“At some point I guess it’s what can and what should we do as Innisfail within our capabilities?’’ he concluded.

However, Coun. Don Harrison made it clear council has a moral obligation to show leadership on the issue.

"We as council, the leadership of the community, need to lead by example," said Harrison, a strong supporter of mask wearing. “These cases are not going down. They are increasing every day. We are not in an enhanced area yet. It is all around us.”

Carritt, however, said even if council is presented with a recommendation from administration to toughen up local mask-wearing guidelines, he will vote against it.

“I won’t vote for it. I believe in people having the choice to decide whether they want to wear a mask or not,” said Carritt, a strong proponent of social distancing. “We’ve been encouraged to keep distance for many, many years, so I believe to keep the distance but I also believe peoples’ choice. The government shouldn’t be mandating if they should be wearing masks or not.”