Ottawa’s Dr. Etches ‘seriously exploring’ mandatory masks in commercial spaces

Dr. Vera Etches, Ottawa's medical officer of health, says she's "seriously exploring" options to make masks mandatory in indoor commercial settings. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

With numerous municipalities in Ontario moving to make masks mandatory in commercial spaces, Ottawa’s medical officer of health said Monday the nation’s capital might soon follow suit to maintain progress in fighting the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Dr. Vera Etches said Monday that Ottawa Public Health is “seriously exploring” the possibility of making masks mandatory in local businesses.

She said Monday during a conference call with media that while Ottawa’s case numbers are steady, outbreaks are decreasing and testing capacity is strong, the risk of a rise in infections “is real.”

In the interest of shoring up Ottawa’s defences against a potential resurgence of cases or a second wave of the virus, Etches noted there is “room for improvement” when it comes to mask wearing.

Read more: OC Transpo will require Ottawa bus, LRT riders to wear masks

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The latest round of Ottawa Public Health’s (OPH) engagement surveys with residents shows that 71 per cent of residents said they wore masks most of the time or always when in indoor public spaces in the past week.

Earlier surveys showed 90 per cent of residents agreed or strongly agreed to requiring masks to access certain services and 75 per cent indicated similar support for wearing a mask at work.

Some Ontario cities, including Kingston, Guelph and Wellington County, have instituted rules requiring masks in commercial settings in recent weeks. Others, such as Waterloo Region, are still debating the measure.

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Ottawa has already made it mandatory as of June 15 to wear masks while in transit stations or taking a trip on the bus or light-rail transit.

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Pat Scrimgeour, a director with OC Transpo, said Monday that the transit agency estimates 90 to 95 per cent of riders wore masks in the first week it was required. He noted that staff are still handing out “a few thousand” masks to customers each day.

While masks are considered mandatory to take public transit, it’s not strictly enforced and riders can still board buses and trains without one.

Anthony Di Monte, Ottawa’s general manager of emergency and protective services, said Monday there are a few options as to how bylaw officers could enforce a mandatory mask rule.

The city could derive its authority to police masks from the Ontario’s emergency orders, he said, or council could pass its own municipal bylaw that could see “less severe” fines levied against transgressors than provincially mandated amounts.

If Ottawa passed such a bylaw, special constables on OC Transpo would also have the power to enforce wearing a mask under that authority, Di Monte said.

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Etches said OPH is talking to the mayor’s office and many partners in the city to ensure a coordinated approach to communicating and enforcing a mandatory mask rule, should one come into effect.

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A decision on whether masks will be mandatory in Ottawa’s commercial settings is expected by the end of the week.

Read more: Where to buy face masks online in Canada and how to choose

Meanwhile on Monday, OPH said three more people tested positive for virus in the past day, raising the city’s total number of cases up to 2,086.

There were no additional deaths however in the most recent 24-hour reporting period, leaving the city’s death roll related to the virus at 263 as of Monday.

Roughly 85 per cent of infections are now marked as resolved, with 43 cases considered ongoing.

Etches noted Monday that even with robust testing in Ottawa, OPH’s figures likely represent “just a fraction” of the total coronavirus cases throughout the community.

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