Face coverings mandated in enclosed indoor public spaces as of Saturday: Dr. Chris Mackie

While he maintains the local risk of infection is low, the medical officer of health for the Middlesex-London Health Unit says as of 12:01 a.m. Saturday, face coverings will be mandatory in indoor, enclosed public spaces in an effort to reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus.

“We’re not talking about all public spaces. We’re not even talking about business or back-office environments where there’s no public access,” Dr. Chris Mackie explained during a news conference on Friday.

“This is really about those environments where, in spite of our best efforts, someone else may violate our two-metre bubble. So, where there’s public access and an indoor environment — that’s where this masking instruction would apply.”

Read more: London, Ont., councillors to hold special meeting Monday on issue of mandatory masks

According to Mackie, there are basically three ways to direct the use of face coverings, or masks, in the region:

  1. An order from the medical officer of health under section 22 of the Health Protection and Promotion Act (HPPA).
  2. An instruction from public health officials to businesses reopening under Stage 3, through the Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act.
  3. A municipal bylaw

The Middlesex-London Health Unit is moving forward with the second option — issuing an instruction — and is also suggesting that municipalities take action through the third option. London, Ont., city councillors are expected to vote on a bylaw as early as Tuesday.

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The health unit suggests the bylaws include requirements that people wear masks and that businesses take actions to ensure masks are worn in all indoor public spaces and that a communication campaign be launched to promote the bylaw and also to “highlight the continuing need for physical distancing.”

Friday’s news conference provided just 10 hours’ notice to the public, a far cry from the two-and-a-half week notice provided between the announcement of a mandate for the use of masks on public transit and into other specific scenarios, which actually comes into effect days after the instruction, on July 20.

Read more: Middlesex-London Health Unit mandates masks for transit riders, some businesses

Despite the speed of implementation, the instruction does have drawbacks, said Mackie — the measure is “not tested” and could be overturned, and it’s potentially “a very temporary option.”

“The instruction under the regulation is only in place as long as that regulation remains in place and as long as the provincial declaration of the emergency state of emergency remains in place. And so that’s why I’m recommending and requesting that city council and the lower-tier municipal councils in the County of Middlesex also issue bylaws to that effect.”

Read more: Coronavirus: 1 new case, 1 recovery reported as London-Middlesex enters Stage 3

Mackie says he chose not to use the first option, issuing an order under the HPPA, because that measure “has very clearly laid out criteria that have to be entirely related to communicable disease risk in the community and belief of effectiveness.”

“We’re simply not at a rate of illness in our community right now that justifies, in my opinion, an order under the Health Protection Promotion Act.”

However, he did not rule out issuing an order in the future, “if disease levels climb and masking compliance is not high.”

There are also exceptions to the instruction, including: children under 12; people “who have a medical condition or disability which inhibits their ability to wear a face-covering;” and those unable to apply or remove a face covering on their own. As well, the health unit says there is “no requirement for anyone to provide proof of exemption.”

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As for enforcement, both Mackie and City of London Mayor Ed Holder said the focus at first would be on education, and both stressed that citizens should not make efforts to enforce policy on other citizens.

“I think the biggest challenge with enforcement will be encouraging citizens not to enforce on fellow citizens,” said Mackie.

“We’ve seen significant conflicts and some really unfortunate outcomes result in that sort of citizen enforcement. And we would really encourage people not to take that on, anything beyond a gentle reminder of the importance of masking.

“Please do not police others.”

Holder stressed that citizens should instead be directing concerns to the city’s tipline and email.

“We’ve always had a call-in line where people can express those concerns and we will follow through as we have in the last number of months,” said Holder.

“This starts with education. And if anything were to come through bylaw enforcement process in terms of any enactment of a bylaw through city council, then that would be up to the municipal law enforcement office to deal with that and enforce any bylaw that may ensue as a result of this.”

Read more: Middlesex-London Health Unit mandates masks for transit riders, some businesses

The announcement comes less than 24 hours after a motion to recommend that Mackie implement a broader face-mask mandate was withdrawn at Thursday’s board of health meeting, and just days after a special meeting was called for Monday, July 20 so that London city councillors could hear directly from Mackie about the issue of masks.

At Thursday’s board of health meeting, board member and London city councillor Arielle Kayabaga introduced a motion that would recommend Mackie issue a broader mask mandate as soon as possible in the region. Board member and deputy mayor of Thames Centre, Kelly Elliott, seconded the motion but it was ultimately withdrawn following further discussion.

“We can’t pressure Dr. Mackie to make that decision as a board of health,” Elliott explained on The Craig Needles Show on Friday morning, before Mackie’s announcement.

“And so the motion was ultimately withdrawn and not voted on.”

Elliott also raised concerns about using bylaws to mandate the use of masks — specifically in terms of each individual municipality and on potential legal repercussions.

“Middlesex County, which is made up of eight municipalities, as per our agreement with our lower-tier municipalities at the county, we can’t enact a mandatory mask bylaw. So each individual municipality has to make that bylaw,” she said.

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“If the City of London gets challenged on a mask bylaw, that’s great — they have a legal department and resources and a budget to handle that. Some of the smaller municipalities in Middlesex County — we don’t. So it’s a bigger risk to implement a mask bylaw if we don’t know for sure that we’re allowed to do it.”

There’s also the issue of timeliness — Thames Centre, for example, doesn’t meet again until Aug. 10, so a special meeting would have to be called.

At Friday’s meeting, Mackie said he spoke with the county’s warden, Lucan Biddulph Mayor Cathy Burghardt-Jesson, who confirmed that a single bylaw cannot be passed at the county-level.

“So that’s why that recommendation is coming to the lower-tier municipalities. I’m not going to give any direction to lower-tier municipalities in terms of how they choose to respond to the recommendation. I know they’ll consider a number of factors. Certainly, the rate of disease in Middlesex County has been below that of the city of London.”

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