Just about everyone in New Brunswick is more exposed to COVID-19 this week now that all health restrictions have ended, but the province’s 49 MLAs will continue to protect themselves from the virus — and from the public — for a while longer.
The all-party committee that oversees the Legislative Assembly has voted to keep ordinary citizens from entering the building to proceedings when the current session resumes next week.
MLAs will also be required to keep wearing masks on the floor of the chamber except when they’re speaking, according to People’s Alliance Leader Kris Austin.
The public hasn’t been allowed in the building to follow debates since the initial provincewide lockdown in March 2020, though there have been exceptions for people with meetings or appointments.
So while schoolchildren, restaurant customers, concert-goers, mall shoppers and others are free of restrictions, and less protected, MLAs and legislative staff will maintain rules and continue to enjoy relative safety from the airborne virus as a result.
“It sets a very bad example, and that’s why I felt a need to make it known what my position is and that I disagree with this decision,” Austin said in revealing the behind-closed-doors decision.
He said if restrictions have ended elsewhere, they should also end at the legislature so that the public can enter the building and debates.
“Everybody else, private and public sector, are getting back to some sense of normal and here we are as elected officials doing the opposite.”
Health Minister Dorothy Shephard said Thursday that the province is still in a COVID “transition” and that institutions need to have “a comfort level” in governing themselves.
She pointed out that the Provincial Court and the University of New Brunswick are among institutions keeping mask rules in place.
“This is an evolution,” she said. “There’s a proceed-with-caution feeling out there. I think we have to support it and we have to allow that comfort level to grow as we proceed over the next few days and weeks.”
Shephard says she’s planning to keep wearing a mask in many settings “for a while” because her husband has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
Green Party house leader Kevin Arseneau said the decision will be reevaluated after two weeks of sittings, adding that reopening to the public is “top of mind” for all MLAs.
“In a way, this is a group of individual members telling the premier and cabinet that opening everything up too quickly and not phasing it in was not the responsible thing to do,” he added.
Shephard said she believes if Public Health were asked how the legislature could admit the public safely, they “could offer some suggestions, and I think there are probably discussions still to come.”
Liberal Leader Roger Melanson said keeping the public out is required because of the way mask rules are staying in place for MLAs.
Members on the floor will have to be masked. If they choose not to wear a mask, they have to sit upstairs in the public gallery, a space that’s been used by some MLAs and ministers over the last two years to allow for distancing.
Melanson compared it to any employer having the freedom to voluntarily keep some protections in place.
“The committee managing the legislature assembly made a decision within the legislative assembly,” he said.
But he also said that it demonstrates politicians are listening to those who feel restrictions have been lifted too early.
“It shows that as MLAs on the committee, we hear New Brunswickers, and there are some concerns. They’ll telling us to be prudent, to do it gradually,” he said.
“We have MLAs who are immune-compromised. We also want to make sure that everybody’s safe as we move forward.”
Even so, Austin says the decision will be seen as a double standard by New Brunswickers on both sides of the debate: those who support ending restrictions and also by those who want them kept in place.
“Whichever angle you take on restrictions and policies as it relates to COVID, this is bad on both sides,” he said.
“If you think restrictions should be there, how can we as elected officials say they apply to us but they don’t apply to everybody else? On the flip side, if we’re saying, ‘look, we have to learn to live with COVID and we need less restrictions,’ we’re not applying it ourselves.”
The legislative administration committee that made the decision includes MLAs from all four parties in the house.
It meets in secret and its deliberations are normally confidential. Austin said that’s why he could not disclose who made the suggestion that restrictions stay in place or what their rationale was.
The session resumes March 22 with the tabling of the provincial budget.