Several dozen people gathered at Vancouver’s Jack Poole Plaza for a protest against mandatory mask policies on Sunday.
British Columbia does not require masks in public, but some private businesses do need customers to wear them to enter the premises.
March to Unmask organizer Ryan Kulbaba told attendees he feared the province could emulate other jurisdictions, such as Toronto, that have passed bylaws requiring people to wear masks in indoor public places and on transit.
Protesters carried signs equating mask-wearing to fascism, calling COVID-19 a fraud and advocating “hugs over masks.”
One attendee told Global News wearing a mask causes cancer, an assertion not supported by any scientific evidence.
Others claimed information about masks coming from the media and health officials was part of a global conspiracy to create a world government funded by Bill Gates.
“We are saying my body, my choice, my immune system, I have the right to choose for myself,” Kulbaba told the crowd.
“I’m not anti-mask, I wear a mask 24/7, it’s called an immune system.”
Non-medical masks do not protect the wearer from COVID-19.
Medical experts say masks work by capturing droplets people exhale, preventing potentially infectious viral particles from spreading to other people.
Dr. Jason Kindrachuk, a University of Manitoba assistant medical microbiology professor and Canada research chair who studies infectious diseases and viruses, told Global News the anti-mask movement is “not based in reality,” following a similar rally in Winnipeg.
“Masks ultimately will help prevent a certain amount of the virus from being transmitted, in particular from those people that either are asymptomatically infected or in the presymptomatic stages of an infection when we know they can transmit, but they don’t notice or have any obvious overt symptoms,” he said.
Health officials did not recommend widespread use of masks early in the pandemic, but have since revised their position as more evidence emerged about the virus.
While B.C. health officials do not mandate that people wear masks, they now recommend their use in public, particularly in places where physical distancing is not possible, such as transit or in stores.
Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry endorsed their use in May, but maintains physical distancing and handwashing are the best way to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Scientists now believe that coronavirus-infected aerosolized droplets, which are spread by coughing or sneezing, can hang in the air longer than expected, adding to indoor risk.
The B.C. Centre for Disease Control also says masks can play a preventive role for people who have very mild symptoms or who don’t yet realize they are infected and can spread the virus.
A number of myths by mask opponents have also been widely debunked.
Doctors say masks do not decrease oxygen intake, increase toxin inhalation, shut down a person’s immune system or increase virus risk.
Protesters held similar rallies in Montreal, Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Calgary, Edmonton and other Canadian cities.
-With files from Eric Pindera