Starting next week, masks and face coverings will be mandatory inside commercial settings in Windsor and Essex County, the region’s associate medical officer of health announced Friday.
The change is a step up from the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit’s previous guidance on the matter, which said that cloth face coverings were recommended, particularly in areas where physical distancing was not possible.
Speaking during the health unit’s COVID-19 briefing on Friday, Dr. Wajid Ahmed said the move comes as the region looks to safely progress to Stage 2 of the province’s reopening plans as most other areas have done.
Ahmed said announcing the plan now gives residents and business owners time to be prepared, and to put policies in place requiring masks upon entry.
“Having a mandatory mask policy at all commercial establishments will make it everyone’s responsibility to play their part in reducing the transmission,” Ahmed said.
“We will be sharing more details on the specific requirements for masking every early next week.”
The health unit noted that exceptions will be included for those unable to wear masks as a result of pre-existing medical conditions.
Windsor-Essex joins Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph as being the only other region in the province to require face coverings in commercial establishments. In London, masks haven’t been mandated, but are instead strongly recommended in public spaces.
Ahmed said the new requirement would see businesses put their own policies in place to ensure customers and staff wear a face covering.
“It would be the business establishment who would be setting up these recommendations for everyone,” he said, adding the health unit plans to work with businesses on specific language.
Ahmed noted that many businesses have mask policies in place and some customers have been following the health unit’s previous recommendations regarding masks.
“It would be [up] to the individual to bring their own mask before they go into the facility. The business establishment can facilitate that as well, but those are some of the details that we’ll still have to work out and share in the coming weeks,” he said.
Windsor-Essex is among just three regions in Ontario — the others being Peel and Toronto — who will remain in Stage 1 of the province’s plans until at least next Friday.
The government is expected to provide another assessment of those regions’ progress on Monday.
Several areas, including nearby Lambton County, were allowed to move into Stage 2 on Friday.
For Windsor and Essex, the delayed progress is due to the county sharing a border with the United States, where some residents and health professionals travel to and from for work, and the high numbers of cases reported among migrant farmworkers.
Since the pandemic began, dozens of migrant workers in Windsor-Essex have tested positive for COVID-19, two have died, and outbreaks have been reported at nine farms — three in Kingsville and five in Leamington.
Seventeen of the 19 cases reported in Windsor-Essex on Friday alone involved the agri-food sector, health officials said. The health unit counts both local and migrant farmworkers in its agri-food tally.
In total, Windsor-Essex has seen 1,263 COVID-19 cases, of which 730 have resolved and 68 have died.
At least 365 of the region’s cases — about 30 per cent — involve agri-farm workers, of whom 195 have since recovered and two have died.
On Wednesday, Premier Doug Ford pleaded with the province’s “scared” migrant workers to get tested, a day after Erie Shores HealthCare announced it would be closing a testing centre dedicated to assessing the impact of COVID-19 on migrant workers in the area.
The centre, which opened June 9 in Leamington, Ont., had tested 724 of the region’s some 8,000 migrant farmworkers.
The hospital said the centre, which could only accommodate about 100 workers an hour, was not an efficient use of resources, and notes that while it had previously considered on-farm testing, ruled that option out as it would “next to impossible” to attend all of the roughly 176 agri-food farms in Windsor-Essex.
Health Minister Christine Elliott said Wednesday that a “hybrid” strategy could be used, with a stand-alone testing centre and mobile teams going from farm to farm.
Windsor’s mayor has said the farm outbreaks have impacted his city’s ability to move into Stage 2, and on Wednesday called for mandatory testing of all migrant workers, something Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers rejects.
“We need to be very aware that employees here under the temporary foreign worker program enjoy the same rights and freedoms of all Canadians,” the group’s spokesperson, Justine Taylor, told The Canadian Press.
“At this point in time, testing has not been made mandatory for any other groups of individuals,” she said, noting the challenges
— With files from Shawn Jeffords and Allison Jones of The Canadian Press
© 2020 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.