Some council members are asking: is it time to stop requiring City of Winnipeg employees to mask up?
In March, the provincial government dropped the demand Manitobans wear face masks in indoor public spaces, as virtually all other COVID-19 pandemic public health orders expired.
However, the City of Winnipeg only lifted the requirement in its buildings and Transit buses for members of the public, requiring all municipal staff who work in city buildings or vehicles to keep their faces covered. The rule applies to all 10,400 city employees, except those working remotely.
Months later, one councillor is asking chief administrative officer Michael Jack to consider allowing municipal staff the option to bare their faces, as well.
"I believe now is the time," said Coun. Jeff Browaty.
In a tight labour market, Browaty fears still requiring employees to wear masks could hinder the city’s ability to attract workers. He said the mandate may also make it more enticing for existing employees to choose remote work over returning to downtown offices.
"(For municipal) employees returning to work, a lot of them have some level of flexibility and choice in the matter. You could argue there’s some people who (don’t) want to wear a mask all day, so (they choose) to continue working remotely," the North Kildonan councillor said Tuesday.
"I think it should be a matter of choice at this point." — Coun. Jeff Browaty
That could result in fewer people returning downtown and supporting small businesses, he added.
Browaty said he doesn’t oppose mask mandates in general and had lobbied for a mask mandate on city buses early in the pandemic.
"It wasn’t a bad strategy, but I think we’ve seen from our experience that the (case) numbers haven’t gone completely crazy (as mask requirements lifted). So I think now is a reasonable time (to end the city mandate)," he said. "I think it should be a matter of choice at this point."
The head of the city’s largest union said members have mixed views on the ongoing mandate. Some staff strongly support it — and want it expanded to include the public — while others would like it eliminated immediately, said Gord Delbridge, president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 500.
The union has filed a policy grievance with the city, challenging it to justify its current stance, which CUPE argues is inconsistent because it applies only to staff and not the residents they serve.
"Essentially, we’re saying pick a lane. If we’re going to require masks (for staff indoors), then everyone should have to wear mask. You can’t pick and choose that some have to (when) others don’t mask if (they’re) in close vicinity with other people," said Delbridge.
Coun. Sherri Rollins, head of council’s protection committee, said Jack is best suited to determine whether the mandate can safely end without compromising services.
"I rely on the CAO to run the city. When front-line responders and people in water and waste aren’t available due to large COVID outbreaks in the workplace, only the CAO and (some) managers know that," said Rollins. "I want to make sure that we’re delivering services to Winnipeggers, first and foremost — and if that means mask mandates, that means mask mandates."
The Fort Rouge-East Fort Garry councillor said she still deems face masks an important tool to prevent the spread of COVID-19, and recently received public requests to reimpose the mask mandate for everyone who boards Winnipeg Transit buses.
“Essentially, we’re saying pick a lane. If we’re going to require masks (for staff indoors), then everyone should have to wear mask." — Gord Delbridge, president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 500
Other city councillors, too, have concluded it’s time to explore lifting the mandate.
"It should be a personal preference for our employees… We’re seeing more and more restrictions around the country and around the world being loosened," said Coun. Kevin Klein. "I think the time has come to allow staff to make that decision on their own behalf."
Coun. Cindy Gilroy voiced support to ending the mandate, though she noted the decision falls under the CAO’s authority.
"I think (masks) were important at one time in protecting us, and if they need to come back, I’d be OK with that... But as of right now… I think that’d be up to the discretion of the individual," said Gilroy.
Coun. Scott Gillingham said the city should follow the lead of provincial health officials on all pandemic decisions.
"The provincial requirement for their employees to wear masks was dropped some time ago. I would support our city staff following suit," said Gillingham.
In a brief emailed statement, a city spokesman did not directly comment on the fact the employee mask requirement has lasted months longer than many others.
"In an effort to keep our employees and the public they interact with as safe as possible, we are maintaining a number of health and safety measures, including the mask requirement for City of Winnipeg employees… There are no immediate plans to change these health and safety measures," wrote David Driedger.
Born and raised in Winnipeg, Joyanne loves to tell the stories of this city, especially when politics is involved. Joyanne became the city hall reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press in early 2020.