Sackville Town Council is considering asking New Brunswick’s Chief Medical Officer of Health to require people to wear masks in public to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus.
The idea for sending that formal request to Dr. Jennifer Russell came after a majority of councillors spoke against passing a municipal bylaw requiring people to wear masks.
Councillor Allison Butcher originally proposed a bylaw even though she acknowledged it would be difficult to pass one anytime soon.
“I had to go to Nova Scotia yesterday and I stopped at a store and it was so refreshing to see that the mask compliance was close to a hundred percent,” Butcher told council, referring to the requirement in Nova Scotia that people wear masks in most indoor public places.
“I would feel a lot more comfortable in stores if people who chose not to wear a mask or couldn’t wear a mask for a medical reason, would remember to socially distance,” Butcher added.
“It feels like oftentimes, people who are not wearing a mask are also not practising social distancing.”
She noted that university students will be returning soon and with schools reopening in the fall, it’s important to be on guard.
“I have a daughter with some underlying health concerns,” Butcher said. “I’m trying not to be afraid of COVID, but part of being a mother is unfortunately thinking about the worst-case scenarios.”
Bylaw hard to enforce
CAO Jamie Burke said that while municipalities have the authority to pass bylaws to protect public health and safety, the town’s lawyer isn’t sure if Sackville has the power to make wearing masks mandatory.
Burke added that, in any case, enforcing such a bylaw would be difficult since the town has only one enforcement officer.
“I personally would expect his phone to be ringing off the hook especially after the students arrive after the long weekend in September,” Burke said, adding that it could take weeks or months to draft and pass such a bylaw.
After several councillors agreed a bylaw would be hard to enforce, Mayor Higham summed up the 20-minute discussion by suggesting that town council send a letter to the medical officer of health calling on New Brunswick to harmonize its mask-wearing rules with the ones in Nova Scotia.
He said the town’s letter could include a request for any mask-related “education and communication tools” that the medical officer might be able to provide.
Higham said the town could also set an example by requiring masks in the public spaces of its own buildings and by working with local businesses to ensure they’re following provincial rules requiring people to wear masks wherever social distancing isn’t possible.
“The fifth thing,” Higham said, “is for the town to consider — because we’ve been looking for ways to help local businesses — to consider setting aside a little bit of budget for an ability to purchase some of those tools, communication methods, etc.”
No immediate return to council chambers
Sackville councillors also spent nearly 30 minutes last night discussing whether they should start holding meetings again in the council chambers instead of continuing with their “virtual” online ones.
All but Councillor Shawn Mesheau opposed returning to face-to-face meetings at town hall.
Councillor Bill Evans read a nine minute statement that seemed to summarize arguments made by the majority of his council colleagues.
“We are in a pandemic, which means that the virus and the disease are everywhere around the world, millions have been affected and hundreds of thousands have died,” Evans said.
He added that even though Sackville seems to be free of COVID-19 at the moment, an outbreak could happen at any time and so it’s important to avoid unnecessary contact.
“There is no good reason to believe that the pandemic is almost over,” Evans said. “By looking south of the border, we can see what our future could easily look like if we carelessly let down our guard.”
He compared precautions against COVID-19 to buying fire insurance or wearing seat belts even though, in his case, he has never had a fire or been involved in a serious car crash.
“I am going to continue paying for fire insurance, continue wearing my seat belt and I think that we should continue with virtual meetings,” Evans concluded.
Learning to live with the virus
Councillor Mesheau said that before making his statement favouring a return to the council chambers, he wanted to hear from CAO Burke on staff planning for such a return.
Burke said staff had determined that meetings could be held in the chamber with proper social distancing for both members of council and staff.
“We feel that we can do that safely,” he added. “We’re very fortunate to have the space here. We have a nice, big open chamber, it’s easy circulation, so it is certainly doable to get back [to] in-person meetings.”
Burke said members of staff haven’t worked out the rules yet that would govern how members of the public could attend face-to-face council meetings.
For his part, Mesheau argued that it’s time to start the process of living with the pandemic.
“This is not going away. Even after a vaccination, it won’t be gone. It will still be amongst us and the risks will still be there,” he said.
Mesheau said he deals with the reality of the pandemic every day in his job stocking shelves at Sackville’s downtown supermarket.
“I understand people’s concerns. I don’t live in fear of COVID-19. I’ve learned to live with it,” he said.
When will the time come that we say ‘now is the time’ [to return to in-person meetings.]?” he asked.
“I think personally that we should try this, see if it works and see what comes from it.”