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New bylaw mandates masks in indoor public spaces in Sarnia, Ont.

Rick Madonik/Toronto Star via Getty Images

Starting Friday, masks will be mandatory in indoor public spaces in the city of Sarnia, Ont.

The city’s council voted 6-2 during a special meeting on Monday to endorse a mask bylaw that will come into effect at 12:01 a.m. July 31, mandating that people wear a mask or face covering before entering and while inside establishments.

The bylaw is set to expire at the end of the year, but can be reexamined if case numbers are found to be “on the right track,” said the city’s mayor, Mike Bradley.

It comes just days after the county entered Stage 3 of the province’s reopening plans on Friday, allowing for larger gathering sizes and more businesses to be open.

Read more: 7 more regions now in Stage 3 including some of GTA, Hamilton, Niagara areas

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“It’s trying to move forward to get across to the public the seriousness of where we’re at,” Bradley said Monday.

The region counted two new cases of the coronavirus late Sunday, bringing its total to 295. Of those, 261 people have recovered and 25 have died. Of the nine known active cases, at least seven are in Sarnia, according to health unit figures.

“As we enter Stage 3… there’s this idea that this is over, the COVID war is coming to a conclusion,” Bradley continued.

“It’s far from over. And this, in turn, gives us one more thing to try to keep the numbers down.”

According to Public Health Ontario, Lambton County’s incident rate stands at 225.3 per 100,000 people. In comparison, Middlesex, which has more than twice the population, has an incident rate of 130.8 per 100,000.

Read more: Coronavirus: London, Ont., councillors enact mask bylaw, exclude certain religious ceremonies

Like mask bylaws in other municipalities, Sarnia’s covers businesses, places of worship, city indoor recreational facilities, libraries, and other spaces, and defines a mask or face covering as being large enough to fit over the mouth, nose, and chin without gapping.

Medical and non-medical masks, like bandanas, scarfs, and homemade face coverings made of cloth, linen, or other similar fabric, are acceptable under the bylaw. Those caught violating the mandate could be handed a $1,000 fine by city bylaw officers.

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People with underlying medical conditions, those unable to wear a mask without assistance, and children under the age of five are among those excluded from the bylaw.

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It also permits masks to be temporarily removed “for the purpose of receiving services” or while “actively engaging in an athletic or fitness activity.”

The city’s transit does not appear to be covered by the bylaw. Masks aren’t currently mandated on buses, but they are recommended.

Read more: Toronto mayor says mask bylaw could be brought in if apartment, condo buildings don’t comply

Monday’s vote comes less than a month after the region’s health unit announced it would not issue any Lambton-wide mask mandates, telling members of county council that “evidence and local context” did not support doing so.

A majority of county councillors agreed, and on July 8, rejected a motion put forward by Bradley to have Lambton establish and enforce a policy and/or bylaw to make masks mandatory as the region moved into Stage 3.

Tips on how to wear makeup while wearing a face mask
Tips on how to wear makeup while wearing a face mask

Each of the county’s 11 municipalities were, in effect, left to figure out the issue of masks themselves. Bradley charged that the county had failed Lambton residents, and said he would look at putting forward a bylaw for the city.

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However, he expressed uncertainty that it would get the support needed to pass in Sarnia’s council. Five members of the city’s nine-member council sit on county council, Bradley included. Three voted against his July 8 motion.

Last week, Bradley pushed city councillors to hold a special meeting to discuss the issue, but only two politicians came forward in support, he said — below the required five.

“The public reacted very strongly,” he said, “and there was a petition from council which had five signatures, including mine, so we had a special meeting this morning.”

“I personally responded this last two days to 350 to 400 emails, most pro, some negative. That, I think made the determination on councillors changing their vote. We had one who voted against at county council and changed his vote when he came to city council for the same issue.”

Read more: 8 in 10 Canadians support mandatory masks in public places during COVID-19: poll

Among those opposed to mandatory masking are Sarnia councillors Terry Burrell and Margaret Bird. The two both voted against the bylaw on Monday.

Speaking prior to the vote, Burrell told council colleagues that he was in favour of people wearing masks, but preferred it “on a voluntary basis where social distancing cannot be done.”

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“I do not support mandatory masks for many reasons,” he said, suggesting that the wording of the motion placed the burden of ensuring compliance onto the shoulders of business owners and other public space operators.

“To me, it’s not going to be equitable at all,” he continued. “And if there’s no exemption for social distancing, and I think that’s the real, real problem here, is that if an organization sets up so that they are social (distancing), then they should not need this mandatory masking. It should be one or the other, but it is not.”

Bird called into question the legal power municipalities have in implementing such regulations, and said that the province’s language on the issue was that masks were, still, just strongly encouraged, even when dealing with confined areas where social distancing isn’t possible.

“Cities that already have a mask wearing bylaw have followed the guidelines from their local medical health offices, not their council’s,” she said.

“As to date, (Dr. Sudit Ranade) has not seen any definitive evidence that proves mask wearing stops the spread of COVID-19.”

Read more: 3 of 4 Americans want masks to be mandatory amid coronavirus pandemic: poll

Mandatory masking has found widespread support from a majority of the public, with as many as 8 in 10 Canadians in favour, according to a recent survey.

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The chief of staff of Bluewater Health hospital tweeted his support of Sarnia’s bylaw on Monday, calling it a “good move” by city politicians.

“We protect people in the workplace now from smoke. We protect people when they drive with seatbelts. This is a temporary law to get us through a very difficult time,” Bradley said.

“And we’re not even close to the really bumpy ride with COVID as we enter into stage three and as we get into schools opening and other things happening. and anything one can do to mitigate it.”

Sarnia joins London, Windsor, and Toronto as just some of the Ontario municipalities who have enacted their own mask bylaws. Other jurisdictions have seen county or region-wide mandates issued by their respective health units.

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