Defying province, Saskatoon city council takes step towards gathering limit bylaw

Saskatoon City Council has instructed the city solicitor’s office to develop a gathering restrictions bylaw to fight COVID-19.

“I absolutely do not want to have to be in this situation right now,” Mayor Charlie Clark said.

“It's an extraordinary situation, where our city council is having health officers coming forth and laying out how urgent the situation is, identifying a mechanism that has been identified through all of their modeling and planning, which is restricting private gatherings which can help mitigate the very, very urgent situation that we're seeing in our healthcare system.”

He said a city bylaw is “worth trying” even though it’s an “imperfect solution.”

The bylaw would still need council approval.

Earlier this month, the province rejected the city’s request for local gathering restrictions, prompting the Governance and Priorities Committee to investigate the city’s authority to go it alone.

In her report to council on Monday, solicitor Cindy Yelland recommended any COVID-19 bylaw drafted by the City of Saskatoon should focus on private gatherings in private residences, private events at public venues and places of worship.

However, she said that while the city has wide bylaw-making powers, the province is the level of government responsible for public health - not the city.

In her report, Yelland cited modelling provided to the city that shows “limitations on gathering size are arguably the single most important and actionable lever for lowering the spread of COVID-19 in our province.

“The scientific modelling from the (University of Saskatchewan Computational Epidemiology and Public Health Informatics Laboratory) and the local Medical Health Officer agree that if Saskatoon gathering restrictions had been implemented at the beginning of October or earlier, when Saskatoon was trending upwards, there would have been a more meaningful impact on lowering the transmission of COVID-19 in Saskatoon, but implementation still has value as it will drive down transmission faster in the community.”

Councillors Randy Donauer, Darren Hill and Troy Davies opposed the motion to draft the bylaw, with Donauer saying such guidelines are the province’s responsibility and the city has no authority.

Early in the pandemic, the City of Regina uncsuccesfully tried to introduce municipal public health measures. 

At the meeting, Saskatoon’s medical health officer, Dr. Jasmine Hasselback, recommended measures similar to Step One in the province’s reopening strategy.

Her recommendations would be in effect for 28 days and would include:

PRIVATE GATHERINGS

  • The unvaccinated and partially vaccinated should not gather beyond their own household
  • Vaccinated households can gather indoors with up to one other household, including children under 12 who are not yet eligible for vaccination.

VENUES

  • Venues for events such as weddings and funerals should reduce to 25 per cent capacity, with no indoor dining if they are only requiring mandatory masks, but not proof of vaccination. If they require proof of vaccination, those restrictions would not apply.

PLACES OF WORSHIP

  • Places that don’t require proof of vaccination should still require mask wearing and reduce in-person attendance to 25 per cent capacity of 150 people, whichever is less.
  • She said she had also made the recommendations in a written submission to the Minister of Health on Friday.

In a statement to CTV News, Ministry of Health spokesperson Jennifer Graham said the City of Saskatoon can create policies that extend to public facilities within their jurisdiction.

"Any bylaw created by a municipality with respect to matters affecting public health need to be reviewed and approved by the Minister of Health pursuant to The Public Health Act, 1994. The Public Health Orders are based on recommendations from the Chief Medical Health Officer.

"These public health measures are helping to address the spread of COVID-19 in Saskatoon and across the province."