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Coronavirus: How other jurisdictions in the London, Ont., area are handling masks

Coronavirus: Ontario health minister says there’s ‘hope’ for move to stage 3 soon
WATCH: Ontario health minister says there's 'hope' for move to stage 3 soon.

With the province now entirely under Stage 2 of the Ford government’s reopening framework, many Ontarians are likely looking toward the future, wondering when Stage 3 will come and lift further restrictions put in place due to the coronavirus pandemic.

According to the province, Stage 3 will allow restaurants and bars to resume dine-in services, will permit performing arts shows and cinemas to operate with limited seating capacity, and will see casinos, gyms, and amusement parks reopen, all with public health measures in place.

While the province hasn’t provided a timeline for when it expects to move forward in its reopening plans, Dr. Chris Mackie, the medical officer of health for London and Middlesex, has said he wouldn’t be surprised if our region moved into Stage 3 by the end of the month.

However, with those lifted lockdown measures comes increased concern about the continued spread of the highly contagious virus as more people venture out to businesses and other newly reopened spaces, including on a public transit system with reduced service and rebounding ridership levels.

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Coronavirus: No timeline revealed for Ontario’s stage 3 of reopening
Coronavirus: No timeline revealed for Ontario’s stage 3 of reopening

With those concerns in mind, the health unit this week officially issued two Section 22 Class Orders under the Health Protection and Promotion Act (HPPA) mandating masks be worn on public transit as well as in taxis and rideshares.

They would also be required at personal care service establishments, like nail and hair salons, where prolonged close contact is unavoidable.

The orders, which will come into effect July 20, do overlap some mask rules already in place through the province’s emergency declaration specific to personal care services.

However, Mackie says the health unit order isn’t reliant on the province extending that declaration, mandates mask-use on local transit, and provides clarity around language.

“[The] provincial declaration talks about personal protective equipment and face coverings. I’m using the language ‘masks’ here in this order, which I think really helps the public understand what we’re looking for,” he said.
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Read more: Should masks be mandatory? It depends

Mackie added it also gives health inspectors the ability to levy fines on those violating the order, but notes the primary method will be about education.

“We absolutely think that people will comply once they know about this. That said, our inspectors won’t hesitate to… issue a fine if someone is not compliant.”

Canada’s public health officials say a non-medical mask or face covering can reduce the spread of a person’s own infectious respiratory droplets.

This matches the advice of other health agencies including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the World Health Organization (WHO), which say face coverings help reduce the spread of COVID-19 in public settings, especially when a physical distance of two meters is not possible to maintain.

The coronavirus spreads through droplets that are emitted when people talk, laugh, sing, cough or sneeze. Indoor spaces are riskier than outdoor spaces because it might be harder to keep people apart and there’s less ventilation, the CDC says.

Read more: Ontario says provincial policy on mandatory masks ‘isn’t necessary’

Premier Doug Ford has resisted calls to make masks mandatory across the province, saying a regional approach is best given the relatively low infection rate in some parts of Ontario.

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Other jurisdictions and health units in the province have chosen to issue their own mask requirements as a result.

Among them is Toronto, where the city’s council voted last week to make masks mandatory in indoor “openly accessible” public settings by way of a temporary bylaw.

That bylaw took effect on Tuesday and came on the recommendation of the city’s medical officer of health. A separate rule has also made masks mandatory on the city’s transit system.

Masks are also mandatory inside businesses and indoor spaces in Ottawa and three surrounding regions, and are also required inside commercial establishments in areas overseen by the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit, and Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Public Health.

Following the Section 22 order issued by the MLHU, Global News Radio 980 CFPL reached out to other neighbouring health units and municipalities to hear their plans when it came to masks.

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Elgin and Oxford

The region’s health unit, Southwestern Public Health (SWPH), has not mandated masks, but remains in open conversation with area municipalities about the issue, said a health unit spokesperson.

Previously, the region’s medical officer of health cited the low case count and one per cent test positivity rate as reasons why no mask order had been issued.

“Residents are doing very well right now without mandated measures,” said Dr. Joyce Lock in a statement late last week.

“Many are masking and we have promoted, encouraged and educated about the use of non-medical masks where physical distancing is not possible for quite some time now.”

Read more: London, Ont., study examines treatment for premature babies for use in COVID-19 patients

The health unit, which covers Elgin and Oxford counties, has reported 86 cases of the coronavirus during the pandemic, a vast majority of which have since recovered.

As of Friday, 79 people had recovered, five had died, and two cases remained active, one in Elgin and one in Oxford. The region saw just six new cases during the entire month of June.

“That being said, if we see a rise or significant change in activity, mandating masks is on the table, as it is in other regions of the province that still face high numbers of cases and new outbreak activity,” Lock added.

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The former Canada Southern Railway Station in St. Thomas, Ont.
The former Canada Southern Railway Station in St. Thomas, Ont. Mark Spowart/Getty Images

In an interview with 980 CFPL earlier this week, St. Thomas Mayor Joe Preston said masks were strongly recommended on the city’s transit, but noted that any move to make masks mandatory, on buses or elsewhere, would come on the health unit’s guidance.

“We have to work in concert with the experts that we have on that philosophy of health, and she’s the expert we have on this topic,” he said of the medical officer of health on Tuesday.

“We’d like her ruling and her thoughts on what should happen. And then the city, of course, would have to go to an implementation piece,” he continued.

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Preston said the city wouldn’t make those decisions without first talking with Lock and the health unit, and consulting other municipalities in the region.

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The health unit held a conference call on Tuesday with the region’s municipalities, and Preston says it appears the health unit would prefer to have more discussions with local communities and transit operators before implementing any mask order, should one be issued.

Another call was held on Friday.

A health unit spokesperson said Tuesday that health officials were continuing to look at local data and available research on the issue, and that, “our position on universal masking is still open for discussion with our local partners.”

“Doing this in partnership with our municipalities is important,” said Megan Cornwell.

Asked about any developments from the call on Friday, Cornwell said the matter remained “an open conversation with our municipalities.”

Read more: June 24: Winnipeg man arrested after refusing to wear mask on plane from Vancouver

“I was hoping that our medical officer of health would lead it … more directly, but I like the fact that they’re saying, ‘can we please have a discussion with municipalities before we all do the same thing?’ And I like the idea that we’re looking at it that way,” Preston said.

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Preston wouldn’t say whether St. Thomas would go ahead and implement its own mask requirement in the event the health unit doesn’t.

“That’s a hypothetical question. I get really in trouble when I answer those,” he said.

Let’s wait. Let’s do one step at a time. Let’s work together, the municipalities and the [health unit] and the medical officer of health, and see what conclusion we come to.”

However, he added, if a secondary decision needed to be made, “I’m sure this council will get together and make it as quickly as possible.”

The main beach in Port Stanley, Ont., May 2016.
The main beach in Port Stanley, Ont., May 2016. Mark Spowart/Getty Images

In Central Elgin, which includes Port Stanley, Mayor Sally Martyn said via email last week that the municipality has “just been encouraging the health unit to do it throughout the area,” when it came to masks.

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Following Tuesday’s call with municipalities, Martyn said that Lock believed mandatory guidelines to wear masks indoors “will come about eventually.”

On Friday, Martyn said that no major changes had come on the issue, but said in an email that the health unit “is moving towards masks starting with transit.”

Martyn has stated previously that Central Elgin’s position on the matter is that any mask mandates need to be regional and not left to each municipality.

“I just believe it is important to wear masks indoors and believe, as we did with the beaches, we all put the rule in place at the same time so there is no confusion,” Martyn said.

Global News Radio 980 CFPL also reached out to Woodstock Mayor Trevor Birtch.

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Huron and Perth

The region’s health unit, Huron Perth Public Health, has changed its tune on the issue of masks and will make them required in commercial establishments in the region effective July 17.

Health officials said Thursday that the region’s medical officer of health, Dr. Miriam Klassen, will issue “formal instructions to employers” on the matter, requiring them to implement a policy for the use of non-medical masks or face coverings, “including the expectation that people entering will wear a face covering.”

Klassen had previously told 980 CFPL as recently as July 3 that the health unit was not considering a county-wide mask order similar to that seen elsewhere, and that instead, health officials would be focusing on education.

“While dense urban areas are at higher risk of COVID-19 transmission, Huron Perth is primarily a large rural area with small populations. Currently, in Huron Perth, the data do not reflect a high level of community transmission,” Klassen said.

The region has had 58 cases in total as of Friday, of which 52 had recovered, and one remained active. Five deaths have been reported, four of them linked to an outbreak at a long-term care home in Stratford that was declared over in May.

Should masks become mandatory in public spaces across the country?
Should masks become mandatory in public spaces across the country?

Klassen is issuing the mask instructions by way of the province’s Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act, and not through a Section 22 Order under the Health Protection and Promotion Act as done in London and Middlesex. 980 CFPL has reached out to the health unit for comment.

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As part of the move, commercial establishments, including retail stores, malls, enclosed farmers’ markets, and business offices with spaces open to the public, will see face masks — medical, non-medical, bandana, scarf, or cloth that covers the nose and mouth — be required.

“As we work towards a successful Stage 3 reopening, we also increase the risk of spreading the virus,” Klassen said in a statement Thursday.

“Normalizing the use of masks helps reduce this risk and helps keep businesses and services up and running. We ask everyone to be kind and understanding when others can’t wear masks, and to physically distance from them.”

The instructions to business owners will be posted online by Monday, the health unit says.

“Operators of commercial establishments are expected to use their best efforts to implement their face covering policies,” said a health unit statement. “This means that signs and verbal reminders are used but there is not a requirement that a business must turn away the customer.”

Stratford, Ont. city hall building.In Stratford, the largest community in Perth County and the largest community within the health unit’s jurisdiction, the city’s mayor, Dan Mathieson, told 980 CFPL that city officials were supportive of the move.

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“She believes it’s in the best interests of the community as we move towards phase three,” Mathieson said Friday. “I fully support Dr. Klassen … it is her decision, rooted in science, and that is her job as the medical officer for our region.

“My job as the mayor of the City of Stratford, like all the leadership across the two counties, is to support those decisions and ensure that we help and assist in rolling them out and be supportive, and where we think that we need to make improvements, we need to tell her, and we will.”

Stratford has seen the highest number of COVID-19 cases compared to the region’s other single- and lower-tier municipalities with 26 overall, however, it hasn’t seen a new coronavirus case since May 26.

Asked whether Stratford would have considered implementing its own mask mandate through a bylaw in the event no region-wide requirement was issued, Mathieson said council hadn’t discussed it, adding he wasn’t in a position to speculate.

“We have not doubted [Klassen] on any of her directives so far, and I don’t perceive that we were going to start at this time.”

Global News Radio 980 CFPL also reached out to Goderich Mayor John Grace for comment.

Sarnia and Lambton

The region’s health unit, Lambton Public Health (LPH), has not issued any mask orders, and does not plan to.

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In a statement released Wednesday, health officials said “evidence and local context” did not support the mandating of public mask use in the county in a community setting.

County councillors agreed, and during their meeting Wednesday morning, voted down a motion put forward to have Lambton establish and enforce a policy and/or bylaw to make masks mandatory in indoor public establishments as the region moves into Stage 3.

The motion was put forward by Sarnia Mayor Mike Bradley, who has been critical of the health unit’s direction on the matter of masks. Five Sarnia councillors sit on county council, including Bradley. Three voted against the motion.

During the meeting, councillors declared their support that those in public indoor spaces wear a mask, if they can, if physical distancing can’t be achieved.

Read more: July 4: Coronavirus: Sauble Beach will be closed again if social distancing ignored: mayor

The reasoning given by the health unit about its decision was the same outlined Tuesday in a letter and technical brief sent to community leaders by the region’s medical officer of health.

In the letter, Dr. Sudit Ranade said he had concluded that issuing a mandatory mask order through HPPA, as Middlesex did, was “not the best option to achieve the objective of protecting and promoting the health of the public” in the county.

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Ranade cited several factors, including what he said was a “low quality of evidence of benefit” and “low certainty of benefit,” in addition to enforcement limitations, and a lack of discussion around potential harms.

He also noted the county’s low population density, and the presence of “other mechanisms” to curb the virus, such as physical distancing and contact tracing and isolation.

Ranade has noted that some municipalities may be considering going the bylaw route, and included a single-page document with his letter that offered guidance to municipalities on that issue.

The document says while passing a bylaw has benefits in that resources can be focused on education and enforcement, he advised community leaders about potential legal issues.

“Please be reminded that bylaws may be challenged before our courts on the basis of vagueness, bad faith, discrimination and/or as a violation of the Charter,” he said.

Ranade called Toronto’s mask bylaw “virtually unenforceable” in an interview on Monday with Blackburn News Sarnia, and noted that enforcing orders issued by health units comes with its own challenges.

Read more: These are the most likely — and least likely — ways to spread COVID-19

Lambton County is home to Sarnia, a border city of more than 71,000 people, as well as several popular beachfront communities, including Grand Bend.

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It’s also been among the worst-hit counties in the London-area, with a total of 286 confirmed coronavirus cases as of late Thursday, including 25 deaths.

At least 105 of those cases and 16 deaths have been linked to nine outbreaks in the region, largely at two Sarnia seniors’ homes.

In recent weeks, however, the county has seen new case numbers drop significantly, and has recorded just 12 in the last four weeks, including none from June 20 to July 3. As well, no new outbreaks have been declared since June 18.

The region entered Stage 2 on June 19, a week after London and Middlesex.

Blue Water Bridge from the Port Edward, Ont., side.
Blue Water Bridge from the Port Edward, Ont., side. Nash Photos via Getty Images

In the wake of the county council vote Wednesday, Sarnia’s Mayor Mike Bradley says he’ll still consider putting forward a mask bylaw in the city.

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However, he says he isn’t certain it would pass given Ranade’s position, and that three of the four Sarnia city councillors he sits with on county council rejected his motion.

“The difficulty there is that I already know that three won’t support it at the local level,” Bradley said Friday. “And when you have the medical officer of health arguing you shouldn’t mandatory mask, it gives comfort to those that don’t want to do it. That’s not my idea of leadership.”

Bradley charges that county councillors failed Lambton residents in making masks a decision for each municipality to decide.

We will regret that, because as we move forward, the statistics will tell the story when we go into Stage 3 how many more infectious cases happen, how many more deaths occur.”

It ultimately remains to be seen, however, how the three councillors who voted against Bradley’s motion would vote when it comes to a city bylaw.

Read more: Coronavirus: Hamilton, Ont., mayor to present mandatory mask bylaw at board of health meeting

Sarnia, the county’s largest community and a border city to Michigan, has no mask requirements of its own in place. Transit riders are asked to wear a mask, but are not required to when boarding a bus.

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Bradley says one of his concerns is that the county’s 11 municipalities — including the village of Point Edward, the Township of St. Clair, and the town of Plympton-Wyoming, which all border Sarnia — will now have to decide for themselves how to proceed, creating a patchwork of rules.

The mayors of Point Edward and St. Clair, Bev Hand and Steve Arnold respectively, both voted down Bradley’s motion. Lonny Napper, the mayor of Plympton-Wyoming, voted in favour.

File photo of Grand Bend’s main beach.
File photo of Grand Bend’s main beach. Daxus via Getty Images

In the Municipality of Lambton Shores, which includes the lakeshore communities of Grand Bend, Port Franks, and Ipperwash, council members there have discussed the issue, but had not been considering implementing their own mask requirements, according to Mayor Bill Weber, who also serves as Lambton’s warden.

980 CFPL reached out to Weber Friday for comment about the county council vote but did not receive a reply by publication.

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In an interview Monday, Weber said his position was “we’ll do what the medical officer of health recommends.”

“We certainly support if you can’t physical distance you need to wear a mask. Several of the businesses are asking that people do that in their business, but we have not mandated that or are not in the discussions to do that for Lambton Shores.”

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The London Free Press reported this week that as many as 7,000 people crowded Grand Bend’s main beach during the Canada Day long weekend, with as many as 250 bylaw tickets doled out for things like smoking and drinking, and failing to social distance.

Similar crowd numbers were seen this past weekend.

Weber said on Monday that the message to those going to the beach was the same one that has been given out time and time again.

“Look after yourself, look after others, and do your best to social distance. And if you can’t, you should wear a mask… There’s a lot of people [that have] been on the beach and people have been trying really hard at staying in their space.”
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In a bid to allow for social distancing, the municipality says no games, sports equipment, or tents are allowed at Grand Bend beach, and residents are encouraged to view the beach webcam before venturing out to the sand.

— With files from The Canadian Press