Council backs mandating masks on Saskatoon Transit buses, but rule not official until vote next week

Councillors also back continuing to recommend, but not requiring masks, at city-owned buildings

Saskatoon city councillors have preliminarily backed the idea of mandating masks for Saskatoon Transit riders starting on Sept. 1.

The city had laid out three options and recommended option two, which would mandate masks on buses.

That option also has the city continuing to recommend that people wear masks when they visit such city-owned facilities as Shaw Centre and the Lawson, Cosmo and Lakewood civic centres. 

Option one would have maintained the status quo, and option three would have required masks on buses and within all city-owned facilities (with the exception of places operated by controlled corporations, such as TCU Place and Remai Modern). Remai Modern recently re-opened and encouraged but did not require mask use.

In a report oulining its reasoning for recommending the second — and more moderate — option, the city said it's already taken steps to ensure visitors are physically distanced by at least two metres in the buildings. 

"Further, indicators for transmission rates and prominence of COVID-19 in the Saskatoon area are relatively low. Considering this, the administration is not recommending the mandated use of non-medical face masks in these facilities at this time." 

Councillors still need to vote on the rule next week at regular city council before it becomes official. 

The city would supply disposable masks to the public for two weeks, at a cost of $19,250.

"We're trying to make sure that there's no option to not following along the policy," said Jim McDonald, director of Saskatoon Transit. 

What if things escalate?

Some councillors expressed concerns about what would happen if a rider refuses to wear a mask or if a dispute breaks out between riders.

McDonald confirmed that bus drivers will not be tasked with cracking down on those riders, and that drivers can reach police quickly if needed. 

"We've come up with a strategy where we're going to capitalize on bus operators informing us not necessarily overtly of the incidents that are happening.... But if we see a trend happening on a certain bus or a certain route in a certain time at a certain place, we can actually validate that that in fact happened, find out how often those individuals are on the bus and we can have some of our supervisory staff on hand to talk and educate to those individuals as necessary."

"I hope calmer heads prevail," McDonald added. 

Ward 7 councillor Mairin Loewen said she's already heard from some riders who are uncomfortable with other riders not wearing masks. 

"I'm concerned about the potential for conflict between transit users," she said.  

Ward 5 councillor Randy Donauer said he was glad there was a procedure planned, given that masking is an emotional issue for some.

"It's very polarizing. We have people kind of making moral judgments on other residents based on how they behave in public.... That's my concern is once we [say], 'This is what you should be doing,' if we're not enforcing it I actually do have a concern that other people will take the law....into their own hands."

Barriers to protect drivers

Council also voted in favour of a motion, fronted by Ward 9 councillor Bev Dubois, calling on the city to study the cost of erecting barriers to protect drivers.

"This is not fixing sidewalks or potholes. This is the health and safety of our city staff," she said.

The city's report will come back in time for Budget 2021 talks this November.