A Calgary woman with a mental health condition preventing her from wearing a face mask in public during the COVID-19 pandemic is calling for more education and empathy when it comes to the city’s mandatory mask bylaw.
Brenda Willy has a letter from her psychologist stating that because of her anxiety and PTSD resulting from childhood trauma, wearing a face covering would be detrimental to her mental health.
While she’s not required to provide proof of her exemption, she told Global News she doesn’t leave the house without it for fear she’ll be harassed for not having a mask on.
“I have had several incidents and run-ins with the general public that have been very disparaging,” she said Wednesday.
“I had one woman chase me down in a store, [saying], ‘Excuse me, excuse me, excuse me, you’re supposed to be wearing a mask,’ and [she] would just not leave me alone.”
Calgary’s bylaw requires residents to wear a mask in indoor public places and on public transit. The bylaw has several exemptions, including those with medical conditions or disabilities that prevent them from wearing a mask. Those who are exempt are not required to provide proof of their medical condition or disability.
Willy, who lives alone, said the negative interactions leave her feeling like she doesn’t want to leave her home, adding she’s had to increase her anti-anxiety medications because of the negative impacts of the confrontations.
“I feel very strongly that this is absolutely discrimination against someone with a disability,” she said. “It’s just horrific if you’re someone like me.
“I feel attacked, harassed, berated, belittled, dismissed. I’m treated like a terrible member of society right now. I’m treated like I’m trying to give somebody COVID[-19] and it’s my fault.”
While she realizes there are likely some people who are simply refusing to wear a mask, Willy said there needs to be more compassion and empathy for those out and about without one on.
“I think we have to put out some notifications that please, just be kind and understanding and leave people alone. We’ve got citizens going after citizens because of this bylaw.”
Willy said she would like to see signs beside the ones advising of the bylaw that encourage people to assume those without a mask have a medical condition and to leave them alone.
She has filed a complaint with the office of her councillor, Peter Demong, and received a reply on Wednesday which she said she’s encouraged by. She also said she’s considering taking legal action in light of the toll the bylaw has taken on her mental health.
School of Public Policy report
Willy is part of a study conducted by the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy in partnership with the MITACS Kids Brain Health Network, which also calls for more education on the exemptions to Calgary’s rule.
Dr. Meaghan Edwards, instructor of Community Health Sciences and co-author of the study, said the bylaw highlights the divide people with disabilities experience in society, which is made greater during the pandemic.
“People who have mental health, cognitive, neuro, physical variations that don’t allow them to wear a mask, when they’re going out in public, they’re feeling a sense of exclusion,” she said.
Edwards said the dozens of people they’ve talked to as part of the study say the exclusion is coming in the form of stigma, staring, confrontations, feeling unwelcome, and also not being physically allowed in doctor’s offices or businesses.
She said the report, which was sent to both the City of Calgary and the province, calls for plain-language educational signage in public places that explain the exemptions and encourage Calgarians to be understanding of those without a mask on.
“The biggest thing is education. And that’s educating everyone from our medical professionals, believe it or not, to our businesses, people on public transit and just the public themselves, about compassion,” Edwards said.
“Wearing a mask is all about kindness, it’s all about caring about each other. We need to have compassion for those of us who may not be able to comply with the bylaw.”
Edwards said the report also calls for more flexibility in the type of face covering people are allowed to wear under the bylaw, like face shields.
Currently, face shields are not the recommended face covering to protect against COVID-19 transmission, though many people wear them as a form of personal protective equipment.
According to Dr. Lynora Saxinger, an associate professor of infectious diseases at the University of Alberta, it’s too early to say whether the shields can be a replacement for a non-medical mask.
“There are a few droplet studies but no actual viral transmission studies that I have seen that clarify whether the face shield, with an open bottom and with airflow around the shield, is as protective as a mask,” Saxinger told Global News in June.
Edwards said the Ministry of Health acknowledged the report, however, the school hadn’t received a response from the city — which recently voted to extend the bylaw — by Wednesday evening.
Global News’ request for comment on the report from the city was not returned by time of publishing.
Anyone facing discrimination because they are unable to comply with Calgary’s face mask bylaw is encouraged to reach out to the School of Public Policy to participate in the research.