UPDATE: On Aug. 13, the City of Edmonton announced they would not longer be distributing the cards after handing out nearly 4,000 over five days.
“We trust that those with legitimate exemptions have been able to obtain a card up to this point,” said a news release from the city. “We are reassessing the program and distribution mechanisms for those with a legitimate exemption and who may want a card but were unable to pick one up in person.”
As cities across Canada introduce mandatory indoor mask bylaws to fight the spread of COVID-19, many people are adjusting to the new normal of wearing masks to the grocery store, mall or library.
But Edmonton residents who aren’t comfortable wearing a mask now have another option in the form of “mask exemption” cards. Unlike fake cards distributed by conspiracy theorists and anti-mask groups, these ones come with the city’s official endorsement.
The cards are orange and roughly the size and shape of a standard business card. “I cannot wear a mask or face covering,” they read, alongside the City of Edmonton logo.
WATCH: Can you be medically exempt from wearing a mask? Story continues below.
They’re part of the city’s indoor mask plan introduced earlier this month. The bylaw requires masks or face coverings inside all public indoor spaces such as grocery stores, malls and libraries in the city. But cardholders are exempt.
“If someone identifies as having some type of ailment, for example, that would limit their ability to wear a mask effectively or be detrimental to their health, they can get these cards that are now being issued,” city councillor Jon Dziadyk told HuffPost Canada. “It’s an official document from the City of Edmonton.”
The goal of the cards is to give people a way to acknowledge their inability to wear a mask if they are challenged in a city business or indoor space where it’s required.
Thousands of cards are being distributed by city staff at recreation centres across the city. Dziadyk said residents don’t have to justify or explain their reason for needing one, and that the program relies on the “honour system.”
“People can come up, and request a card and they can volunteer the reasons why they’re exempt, but they’re not going to be pressed into explaining a medical reason,” he said. “It would be hard to have an exhaustive list of reasons for people being exempted.”
Dziadyk cited many reasons people may not be able to wear a face covering, including breathing issues, anxiety or religious reasons. He said over 1,000 cards have been handed out since the program launched Saturday.
But Dziadyk also acknowledged the public has been divided on the program.
“It’s not a perfectly administered program — I get that,” he said.
Critics have pointed to the “honour system” method of distributing the cards, suggesting that it could be easily exploited and essentially makes the mandatory mask bylaw “useless.”
There’s also the issue of the various “non-official” mask exemption cards that have been circulating across Canada in recent months.
In mid-July, images circulated online of fake “mask exemption” cards bearing the Canadian Red Cross logo. The humanitarian organizations has listed “mask exemption cards” on its website on a list of misinformation hoaxes, adding that it is not at all involved in issuing medical mask exemption cards.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford condemned the fake cards.
“This isn’t the time to put up fraudulent cards to get away and be able to go into a store,” said Ford. “Just be responsible, don’t be a scammer.”
Far-right media organization Rebel Media is also selling “mask exemption cards”, which specifically reference Toronto’s local mask bylaw, for $10 on its website.
Dziadyk said if there’s evidence the cards are being abused, city council can amend the bylaw. He said the City of Edmonton is working with local businesses to spread awareness about how to identify the legitimate Edmonton cards.
“I hope that the sort of official look would distinguish [the Edmonton cards] from [...] illegitimate cards, non-official cards,” Dziadyk said.
He said Edmonton city council will be meeting later this week to discuss the mask bylaw and other COVID-19 measures.
“I hope that the sort of official look would distinguish [the Edmonton cards] from [...] illegitimate cards, non-official cards.”
But even the “official” card won’t get you everywhere in Edmonton. On Friday, a ministerial order clarified Transport Canada’s rules around masks when flying. A passenger must provide a legitimate doctor’s note in order to be exempt from wearing a mask on an airplane.
According to WestJet, if travellers want to fly without a mask, they must provide a medical note that:
- has been issued by a medical professional.
- is on official letterhead.
- is dated.
- clearly states the passenger’s name and that they have a medical condition that prevents them from wearing a mask.
In the wake of news about Edmonton’s mask exemption cards, the airline doubled down on its stance Monday.
Passengers without an official doctor’s note will be denied boarding.