The Middlesex-London Health Unit (MLHU) says the time has come to implement a mandatory mask policy — in certain, “specific circumstances” — in an effort to protect against the spread of the novel coronavirus.
At a news conference Thursday afternoon, medical officer of health Dr. Chris Mackie announced masks will be required in higher-risk businesses where physical distancing is not practical, as well as on public transit.
Mackie noted that it was important to give people enough time to acquire masks, which is why the order doesn’t come into effect until Monday, July 20.
The order, under the Health Protection and Promotion Act, will mandate businesses that provide direct face-to-face service less than two metres away from a customer for more than 15 minutes — for example at hair and nail salons — to ensure everyone involved wear masks. The health unit says “a separate order will require riders of public transit to wear a mask while onboard.”
The policy is not required for children under age 12 “because of the feasibility and the lower risk of children spreading and acquiring and helping poor outcomes,” Mackie said. He also noted that it is possible that the health unit would expand the policy at a later date, but at this time it’s not believed to be necessary.
Penalties for non-compliance can be as high as $5,000 for an individual or $25,000 for a business.
“We really hope to never have to use those penalties and we’ll certainly be focusing on an educational approach. But we won’t hesitate to use those penalties if, if necessary, to achieve compliance.”
During the news conference, Mackie specifically pointed to an outbreak in Kingston involving 27 cases as of Monday tied to a nail salon.
“Kingston Frontenac Lennox and Addington is the health unit, it’s a very similar region to here,” Mackie explained. “You’ve got sort of a mid-sized municipality with proximity to larger municipalities. What happened in Kingston was they had zero to one case for several weeks and over one weekend twenty-seven new cases were announced related to a single outbreak in a nail salon there.”
Mackie said before that outbreak, rates of the disease in the Kingston region were even lower than in Middlesex and London.
“Although our rates of illness in the community are low, our community is still potentially vulnerable to outbreaks. Because of this, we’ve turned our attention to how to help prevent those outbreaks.”
Before taking questions, Mackie took the opportunity to preemptively explain why the health unit is not mandating in public across the board. He noted that the health unit strongly recommends that people wear masks, but “the Health Protection Promotion Act, Section 22 orders — and class orders in particular — are a very powerful tool, and it’s absolutely necessary to use that tool carefully.”
“The reason we’re ordering this in those highest risk settings is because those are the settings that are most likely, in my opinion, to be associated with an outbreak, even in the context of a very low spread of COVID-19 that we currently have in the community.”
Acting mayor Jesse Helmer said the region has done a good job of flattening the curve and reducing the spread of the virus and he believes it’s because “Londoners and folks in Middlesex County have really taken it very seriously.”
“It can be easy, I think, as the case count drops to relax a little bit and to get lulled into a false sense of complacency. And certainly, I think this order is sending a very clear message to folks, especially in those higher risk environments, that we need to do everything we can to protect each other,” said Helmer.
“And I just want to say the emphasis on keeping the distance at all times, making sure you’re washing your hands — those things aren’t replaced by the fact that you are wearing a mask.”
Read more: Should masks be mandatory? It depends
The policy announcement demonstrates the evolving nature of the pandemic and the public health response to it, as well as the impact of burgeoning research on the virus and its spread on public policy.
In a release outlining Thursday’s announcement, the health unit emphasized that “evidence continues to mount that even non-medical masks can help reduce the spread of viruses by containing respiratory droplets that are emitted when a person who may be infected with the virus talks, sneezes or coughs.”
Mackie previously stated on June 22 that while masks were advised, mandating them was not yet necessary. At that time, Mackie noted that regions that had implemented policies — like Windsor and Guelph — had much higher rates of cases.
A policy of mandating masks inside of commercial settings in Windsor-Essex was announced June 19 and implemented the following week. The region has seen a huge influx of cases related to the agri-farm sector, specifically among migrant workers in “congregate living settings.”
Earlier this week, it was revealed that three MLHU staff, including associate medical officer of health Dr. Alex Summers, would be supporting the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit (WECHU) in responding to the massive caseload. On Wednesday, WECHU medical officer of health Dr. Wajid Ahmed ordered a work stoppage at a farm experiencing a large outbreak of COVID-19. The local public health unit says 191 cases of the virus were recorded at the farm over the weekend.
Elsewhere in Ontario, Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA) mayors and chairs met virtually on Monday and unanimously approved a request to the province for a mandatory face-covering policy for large municipalities to help curb the spread of the virus.
The request was denied that night by the Ontario government, which noted in a statement that a policy “isn’t necessary as local medical officers of health have the authority to institute the same policy the mayors requested.”
The following day, Toronto city council approved a bylaw making face coverings mandatory in indoor businesses and enclosed public spaces. It comes into effect July 7. Peel Regional mayors and health officials made moves to enact mandatory face mask use in indoor public spaces that, if passed on Thursday, would also come into effect next week.
In Guelph and Wellington County, the local medical officer of health mandated in early June that residents wear masks or face coverings while in commercial businesses. As previously mentioned, Windsor-Essex implemented a face mask policy in late June.
Between March and July, the rhetoric surrounding the use of masks in Canada has changed dramatically, in accordance with the latest scientific evidence through ongoing research in relation to the virus. After initially advising against wearing non-medical masks, federal health officials said in April that people who don’t have symptoms of COVID-19 could wear non-medical masks when in public as “an additional measure” to avoid spreading droplets, but it wasn’t presented as an official recommendation.
On May 20, federal public health officials began officially recommending people wear non-medical masks to help protect others from the novel coronavirus in situations where physical distancing isn’t possible. Recommendations on the use of non-medical masks amid the ongoing pandemic can be found on the government’s website.
— With files from Gabby Rodrigues, Beatrice Britneff, Laura Hensley and The Canadian Press.
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