Quebec police officers don’t need to wear masks during traffic stops, officials say

Click to play video 'What is the COVID-19 fifteen minute rule?' What is the COVID-19 fifteen minute rule?
What is the COVID-19 fifteen minute rule? – Sep 22, 2020

In the age of COVID-19, if a police officer pulls you over for a traffic stop, should they be wearing a mask when they come to your window? Quebec provincial police say the answer to that question is no.

“What we’re doing is we’re really following public health rules, the way they told us intervene,” said Chief Insp. Guy Lapointe, the Sureté du Quebec’s (SQ) director of communications.

A viral video of a traffic stop last week on a Quebec City highway showed a motorist very displeased with an SQ officer. In the video, the man screams at the officer about how he’s not wearing a mask while standing at the car window. The man even gets out of his car and shoves an officer when he comes close.

“He could have been arrested, quite frankly. He could have been charged with multiple offenses, including assault,” noted Lapointe, who said the officers in question decided to let the man go.

Story continues below advertisement

READ MORE: Majority of Canadians say wearing a mask during coronavirus pandemic is a civic duty: poll

“It’s a 15-minute rule — if a police officer is intervening with an individual and total contact with that person at less than two meters is less than 15 cumulative minutes,” explained Lapointe. “If it exceeds 15 minutes, you need to wear protective gear.”

He added officers are rarely in contact with citizens for longer than 15 minutes during an average traffic stop.

Click to play video 'How to correctly wear a mask or face covering' How to correctly wear a mask or face covering
How to correctly wear a mask or face covering – Sep 11, 2020

The notion of 15 minutes as an exposure threshold is in Health Canada guidelines, documents from Quebec Public Health, the Centers for Disease Control in the U.S. and more.

Story continues below advertisement

“The number comes from the fact that when you look at contact tracing and epidemiological data, we’re finding that fleeting contact, that maybe just minutes in duration doesn’t necessarily lead to spread,” explained Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar with Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Health Security.

[ Sign up for our Health IQ newsletter for the latest coronavirus updates ]

READ MORE: Who is exempt from Quebec’s mask law and why some may not be complying

“That’s sort of the cut-off used for definitions of close contact for public health,” said Dr. Matthew Oughton, infectious diseases specialist at Jewish General Hospital.

Longer exposure means more chance of spreading the virus, but time is not the only factor.

“For example, if somebody coughs right into your face, that might be enough to cause a transmission event even if it was only a few minutes,” said Adalja.

Let’s say that person happens to be emitting a lot of respiratory droplets because they’re coughing or sneezing a lot. Probably the amount of time required is probably less than someone who is emitting fewer droplets,” explained Oughton.

Lapointe said masks cause a litany of problems for police officers, including difficulties in communication. He said he’s not a scientist, and that the SQ is just following what health officials have advised them.

Read more: COMMENTARY: Are mandatory masks politically separating Canadians too?

Story continues below advertisement

Adalja, however, thinks officers should be wearing masks.

“Sometimes traffic stops and interactions with police officers can get heated, where they may be yelling and shouting. We know that yelling and shouting does distribute more particles than someone who is talking at a normal tone,” he explained.

Lapointe countered that the vast majority of traffic stops unfold without incident, and said the man from the viral video only became agitated after being given a ticket.

Adalja thinks police not wearing masks while interacting with the public also creates a perception problem.

We know that the government is the one enforcing and requiring mask covering, so officials that are government agents, including police officers, should be following the same rules that they expect of the citizens and the same rules that they’re supposed to be enforcing. So there is a perception problem,” he said.

Click to play video 'Quebec first responders insist they take PPE seriously' Quebec first responders insist they take PPE seriously
Quebec first responders insist they take PPE seriously – Jun 17, 2020

Oughton said it’s important for everyone to remember asymptomatic transmission remains a concern.

Story continues below advertisement

“This virus most clearly can be transmitted through close contact for long periods of time, regardless of whether or not the person has any symptoms. So I think and that applies to regular citizens. That applies to police officers. That applies to doctors. That applies to everybody,” he said.

Global News has reached out to the Quebec Health Ministry for clarification on the rules for police officers.