Get ready to mask up in Elgin and Oxford counties.
Officials with the region’s health unit, Southwestern Public Health (SWPH), announced Thursday that all businesses in its jurisdiction were being instructed to mandate face coverings in enclosed public spaces.
The instruction, issued under the Reopening Ontario Act, takes effect at 11:59 p.m. Thursday, but businesses have until midnight Aug. 6 to have mask policies in place thanks to a one-week grace period from the health unit.
Commercial establishments, public transit and vehicles for hire are required to have two policies in place by that time, including one to ensure face coverings are worn by any person for the entire time they are on the premises.
They also have to implement a separate policy focusing on enclosed employee spaces that are not publicly accessible, the health unit says.
“This second policy focuses on physical distancing, face coverings when physical distancing is not possible, enhanced cleaning and disinfecting, and requiring staff who are sick to stay home while advising they be tested for COVID-19,” the health unit said in a statement.
The mask requirements do not apply to schools, child-care centres and providers, and day camps as they are provincially regulated, the health unit said.
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During a conference call with reporters Thursday, Dr. Joyce Lock, the region’s medical officer of health, said SWPH would take an “education-first” approach when it came to enforcement.
“However, after that period, there will be the option for enforcement by municipal bylaw officers or police,” she said.
“For an individual, a fine may be anywhere in the range from $750 to up to $100,000. With corporations, it may be up to $10 million for each day or part of each day on which the offence occurs or continues.”
Municipalities in Elgin and Oxford are being called on to enact their own mask bylaws, and Lock said discussions with local leaders are ongoing.
“We had a meeting earlier this week with all of the municipalities and, in general, the conversation was supportive.”
A ‘face covering’ includes a medical or non-medical mask that covers the nose, mouth and chin. Homemade face coverings, made from bandanas, a scarf or cloth are acceptable, however face shields are not.
Exceptions to the mask mandate include children under two, those unable to wear a face covering due to a medical condition, and those involved in an athletic, fitness, physical activity or any activity that would preclude its use.
Children under five are also exempt if they refuse to wear a face covering and “cannot be persuaded to do so by their caregiver,” according to the instruction.
Lock noted that businesses and other establishments can’t ask residents for proof of exemption from the mandate.
“Remember, not everyone can wear a face covering for medical reasons. Please be understanding and caring to those individuals,” Lock said.
SWPH joins neighbouring jurisdictions, including London-Middlesex and Huron-Perth, in implementing a region-wide mask mandate.
In London and Middlesex, the health unit has issued a Section 22 order under the Health Protection and Promotion Act (HPPA) mandating masks on transit and in certain high-risk businesses, like hair and nail salons.
The health unit has also issued a separate countywide instruction through the Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act (EMCPA), similar to that done by SWPH, mandating masks in all indoor public spaces.
London itself has also implemented its own temporary mask bylaw, as SWPH is recommending for municipalities in its jurisdiction.
Elsewhere, masks are mandated in Huron and Perth by way of an EMCPA instruction, while in Lambton County, no countywide mandate has been implemented or is planned.
Lambton Public Health announced early this month that it was not going to issue a mask mandate as had been done in London-Middlesex and Huron and Perth, saying “evidence and local context” didn’t support doing so.
In effect, the county’s 11 municipalities were left to sort the issue out themselves. Sarnia has since implemented its own mask bylaw, which is set to come into effect on Friday.