By Mike Renzella
The Haldimand Press
HALDIMAND—Haldimand County Council voted in favour of mandatory masks at a special session on Monday, July 27, 2020 after the County staff presented them with a plan that they say is tailored to fit the needs of the region. The resulting bylaw goes into effect on August 1.
“The decision to implement a bylaw was made given mounting evidence of the effectiveness of face coverings in preventing the transmission of COVID-19, and consideration of actions taken by neighbouring municipalities, including Norfolk County, to introduce face covering regulations in the absence of a vaccine,” said a press release issued by the County.
“The expectation of the public is that their voices are to be heard. Obviously, when we make a decision that captures 30% or 50% or 70% of those that have made attempts to give us a reason why we shouldn’t or should support something, it comes back to ‘I’m not being represented’ (by the remainder),” said Mayor Ken Hewitt in response to local opposition to forced mask usage.
The bylaw is temporary and is currently set to end November 2. It aligns with advice given by the Medical Officer of Health regarding the use of face masks as an effective deterrent in stopping the spread of COVID-19 where social distancing cannot be practiced.
“Overall, the intent is to enact a bylaw requiring face coverings in enclosed public spaces where interactions of significant numbers of people are more likely, and where physical distancing is difficult or impossible…. The bylaw includes exemptions for persons with specific medical conditions and disabilities,” said the press release. During Council, it was made clear that residents who require exemption from using a mask will not need to provide proof of the reason why they cannot wear one.
The County chose to break the bylaw into two categories.
Category 1 businesses are indoor buildings with a high amount of traffic, where the amount of interactions between people is at a high volume, leading to an elevated risk threat. Some examples of Category 1 businesses include supermarkets, bakeries, convenience stores, financial institutions, pharmacies, and retail operations with a rough floor area of 5,000 square feet or greater. These businesses must prohibit entry to people with no mask, and they must also install signs notifying customers of the policy.
Category 2 relates to all other businesses, including restaurants, churches, libraries, community centres, and indoor sports and recreational facilities.
They will be required to enforce a social distancing policy, keeping people six feet apart at all times, with instructions posted on signage at entrances. Category 2 businesses possess the right to enforce mask usage at their discretion, but they must enforce mask usage if they are not able to maintain distancing.
“This is a base line. Businesses have the right to create additional standards if they wish. There are a number of acts designed to help them do so,” said Mike Evers, Manager of the Planning & Development Division for the County.
County CAO Craig Manley spoke about the hardest part of putting the bylaw in place. “As with any bylaws, the challenge is going to be enforcement…. Full disclosure, if Council passes a bylaw, it is going to be an education first approach given the resources that we have. Hopefully most people will follow along and do the right thing without enforcement being required.”
The six ward councillors each offered their comments about the bylaw. Ward 4 Councillor Tony Dalimonte brought up memories of a time when the provincial government tasked municipalities with creating local smoking bylaws and the chaos that came from that, comparing it to the mask bylaw. He expressed disappointment that the Province did not take the lead and issue province-wide guidelines.
Ward 1 Councillor Stewart Patterson raised a similar wish that the Province had made the decision instead of putting it on municipalities.
“I didn’t put my name forward in the last election to make new friends, or to make the popular choice, but instead to do what’s right for Ward 1 and the county as a whole,” said Patterson. “Do I agree with the semantics of how we got here today? No, absolutely not. Could we have taken a different approach to reach the same goal? Yes. However, at the end of day, I will support this bylaw as it is a move in the right direction for our community.”
Ward 6 Councillor Bernie Corbett is in full support of the decision. He said, “My background is in a steel factory where I was a WHMIS instructor. It was mandatory to wear a mask to protect me from various substances. It was a health and safety issue, as is COVID-19. It’s a very aggressive, infectious disease that we know little about. It’s not a hoax; it’s real and we must protect ourselves…. I too am vulnerable. I’m a diabetic and I’m a senior, so I’m personally concerned.”
Ward 2 Councillor John Metcalfe believes Haldimand is better off being cautious: “If we pass the bylaw and nothing happens, fantastic. If we pass the bylaw and something does happen, we’re ahead of the curve to stem the coming of the second wave. I look at it as an insurance policy … you hope you never have to use it, but it’s there as a backup.”
Ward 3 Councillor Dan Lawrence said his constituents are mostly in favour: “It’s such an unknown disease that we’re dealing with. The overwhelming majority, seven out of 10, that reach out to me are in favour of the face covering. The remaining three out of 10 do make very good cases based on their minds and beliefs and I respect that 100%.”
Ward 5 Councillor Rob Shirton had a different response from his constituents, although he still voted in favour of the motion to make the decision unanimous: “I will support it as a team player, but if I was to vote based on the number of emails I’ve received, the answer would be a strong no, I don’t support the bylaw. But I like the approach being two-tiered.”
Shirton was also strongly opposed to having the bylaw in effect until November.
Lastly, Mayor Hewitt shared his thoughts on why a bylaw is necessary, despite some push back from the community.
“I think it is incumbent upon us to protect the community. We’ve taken a lot of steps over the last few months to ensure our numbers are safe, and we don’t want to lose that momentum and traction. But if we become the only municipality within 300-500 km that doesn’t have a face covering bylaw, then what message are we sending to those who want to come here?” asked Hewitt. “Every little step that we take to contain this virus is a positive thing, and that’s what this is all about. It’s not about penalizing people.”
The County continues to operate a COVID-19 enforcement hotline, where concerned citizens can report compliance issues, including for this new bylaw. The number is 519-428-8019. Furthermore, the County will soon update its website with a list of resources and frequently asked questions.