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Alberta to distribute face masks through fast-food drive-thru windows

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Alberta Minister of Health Tyler Shandro in a press briefing on May 29, 2020. Image: Screenshot of Government of Alberta Video/YouTube

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney runs a government deeply committed to erasing the obvious connection between government and the services that are essential to the functioning of society. 

How else is he going to persuade Albertans to abandon public health care that works for the broken privatization model now destroying our neighbour to the south one COVID-19 infection at a time? 

This is certainly why the idea of using fast-food drive-thru windows to distribute 20 million surplus masks that apparently aren't up to medical snuff and calling it a social distancing measure appealed to Kenney's strategic brain trust. 

Presumably they had to do something with the masks, and they couldn't very well give the job of handing them out to physicians. After all, this government's at war with Alberta's doctors. God forbid you should ask a doc for medical advice when you're picking up a mask and give her an excuse for more billing!

What's more, the UCP wouldn't want to have an Alberta Health clinic do the job, or even the provincial building in your community, because that would certainly remind some taxpaying Albertans that governments actually do stuff that's useful. Remember, the UCP is a political party dedicated to the proposition government should be dragged into the bathroom and drowned in the bathtub.*

There's a post office in every community too, but asking posties to hand them out would mean letting federal civil servants, and unionized ones at that, give the masks to Albertans serious about social distancing, another reminder Ottawa has done most of the heavy lifting in the fight against COVID-19, while Alberta's financial contribution has been grudging almost every step of the way. 

Anyway, letting McDonald's, A&W and Timmy's distribute the masks not only reinforces the UCP's deceptive talking point that the private sector does everything better than the government, it's a nice deep-fried-squid pro quo to the boys at Restaurants Canada who did so much to help Kenney's election in 2019. 

Technically, the three fast-food chains have promised not to demand you buy an Egg McMuffin, a Papa Burger or a Boston cream doughnut made from frozen du'oh to get your masks. But, count on it, they're expecting you to succumb to the temptation to order something after you've smelled the grease as you roll up to the order board. 

Don't worry about it if your mask has a slight chemical odour when it comes out of the four-pack. Just air it out for a couple of hours. And if the fit doesn't seal, you can always write McDonald's in San Bernardino, A&W in Lexington or Timmy's, which nowadays is really run out of Rio de Janeiro. 

Talk about Canadian public health care at its finest! 

What's next? A nasal swab with those fries?

Oh, and you'll need to have a car if you want a mask from a fast-food drive-thru. Otherwise you'll have to pay upfront for protection from the novel coronavirus at a drugstore. (And sorry, if you're on foot, there will be no masks for you -- social distancing, ya'know.)

You might be able to get one on the bus, though. At least that way you'll be riding on something with an internal-combustion engine using some of Alberta's fairly ethical and only partly Chinese- and Saudi-owned bitumen to operate.

"I want to thank A&W, McDonald's Canada, Tim Hortons, and all of the other organizations and municipalities that have come together to help us distribute millions of masks," Health Minister Tyler Shandro said in the government's press release. "The collective response from leaders in government, public, and private sectors has been overwhelming and I am incredibly grateful to everyone involved."

And those health-care workers, the ones who are risking their lives on the front lines to keep you safe from COVID-19? Never mind them! The UCP is at war with the docs already, and they'll be fighting with the rest of them as soon as union bargaining reopens. So bon appétit, and don't get any ketchup on your mask!

There are more quotes in the release. Here they are:

"Our restaurants across the province have been quick to step up and help organize the distribution of masks, and are looking forward to welcoming Albertans at our drive-thrus" -- Susan Senecal, president and CEO, A&W Canada. (I’ll bet they are!)

"We welcome this opportunity to use our drive-thru operations to assist the Alberta government, and do the right thing for Albertans when they need us most." -- Jeff Kroll, COVID-response lead (!) for McDonald's Canada. (Ditto. They certainly don’t need another Big Mac.)

"When we were asked by the Alberta government to help distribute masks through our drive-thrus we did not hesitate. We're proud to … do our part to help Alberta move forward on its relaunch strategy." -- Mike Hancock, chief operating officer of Tim Hortons. (A pattern here, ya think?)

Readers may ask, Why not distribute the masks through drug stores? There's one in every community and there's even a medical professional on site whenever they're open? And they're places, moreover, where you won't require an automobile to get service. 

Or how about grocery stores? They're a genuine essential service, many with a pharmacy of their own on site.

For that matter, why not local restaurants, which are actually owned by Albertans? 

The answer, in two words, is almost certainly … Restaurants Canada. (This is not what Mr. Shandro told a news conference Friday. "We chose this method, quite honestly, because these partners have access to these 600 sites, to about 95 per cent of our population," he said.) 

Mr. Kenney's been at the heart of the fast-food industry group's lobbying strategy since 2014, when as federal employment minister he temporarily upset their applecart when public outrage pushed him to restrict their ability to hire low-cost, easy-to-exploit temporary foreign workers instead of unemployed Canadians. 

But this is about more than just that.

In addition to its 600-plus "restaurant partner locations," the government's news release did say it will be "working with" First Nations communities, Métis settlements and local agencies. No details were supplied other than Mr. Shandro's response to a reporter that the non-fast-food part of the distribution will cost $350,000. 

But they must have done even that reluctantly, where no fast-food joint was anywhere within miles. Because this is a government with an ideological aversion to letting government do what it does best for fear of creating demand for more government. 

* Credit for this line belongs to creepy Republican operative Grover Norquist, and yes, there really are lots of people in Mr. Kenney's government who think like that. 

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions at The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. This post also appears on his blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

Image: Screenshot of Government of Alberta Video/YouTube​

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