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COVID-19: Will B.C. businesses face conflict when mandatory mask order ends?

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If all goes according to plan, British Columbians will soon no longer have to wear a face mask in indoor public places. But as John Hua reports, as that day approaches business operators could face some tough decisions -- when it comes to designing and then enforcing their own mask rules. – May 26, 2021

Masks could no longer be mandatory in indoor public places in British Columbia come July 1 if COVID-19 case numbers continue to drop.

That’s raising concerns in some quarters that businesses will be left facing potential conflicts with patrons, should they decide to continue requiring them.

Read more: COVID-19: British Columbia reports 250 new cases, fewest since late October

B.C.’s restart plan has set Canada Day as the tentative date for mask guidance to shift from “mandatory” to “recommended” in indoor spaces.

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“When masks are not required, it’s going to be very difficult for (businesses) to enforce,” Michael Brauer, a professor at UBC’s School of Population and Public Health told Global News.

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“I would hope that people will still think about using masks, especially when they’re in certain settings — a crowded indoor environment, perhaps a transit environment.”

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While most people have adapted to the current provincial order requiring masks in indoor public places, the policy has still generated conflict.

Confrontations and even assaults have been documented in several instances around the province over the requirement.

Despite that, Brian Bradley, president of Vancouver-based Stong’s Markets, said the provincial requirement took pressure off businesses whose front-line workers were otherwise left to enforce companies’ mask policies.

“It made it much easier for us to manage, explain to customers, explain to staff why some people were coming in with or without masks,” he said.

“By mandating it, it really took the onus away from our employees at the front line.”

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Read more: Wearing a mask in B.C. indoor public spaces could be optional by July 1

Dr. Anna Wolak, a Vancouver physician and one of the organizers of Masks4Canada, was one of the key voices pushing for mandatory masks, in part for that reason.

“We felt awful for a lot of the front line workers … they were being verbally and sometimes physically abused by people who were resisting masks, when all these kids wanted to do was keep themselves safe,” she said.

Wolak told Global News she would have preferred to see the province hold off on the guidance change until more of B.C.’s population had received both first and second doses of COVID-19 vaccine.

“Canada is what four, five per cent of fully vaccinated individuals? That’s nowhere near enough to get herd immunity,” she said.

Greg Wilson, director of government relations with the Retail Council of Canada, said he’s hoping for clear government messaging that continues to encourage people to mask up, where appropriate.

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“We want customers to know our priority is going to be their health and safety. Another priority is going to be the health and safety of our employees,” he said.

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“We know there’s going to be anxiety. There’s certainly been anxiety about wearing masks, and we anticipate there will be anxiety the other way as well.”

Read more: COVID-19: B.C. lays out restart plan including a return to normal by September

Like Wilson, Wolak said she’ll be watching for clear messaging coming from health officials that promotes the use of masks where appropriate.

But she said she was hopeful that public attitudes about mask wearing had shifted as the pandemic ground on and new evidence about the virus emerged.

“We’ve been through 14, 15 months of this. New evidence has come out that is showing COVID is airborne, that COVID is spread aerosolized,” she said.

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“A lot more people are educating themselves about this, and the hope is businesses, they can keep it in their WorkSafe guidance that people have to wear masks.”

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One key difference between this summer and last year, Brauer said, is a greater availability of medical-grade personal protective equipment.

That means businesses who face challenges getting customers to mask up have the option of turning to to PPE like N95 masks, which can effectively protect the wearer from COVID-19, for their employees, he said.

Read more: COVID-19: B.C.’s restart plan offers roadmap to the return of sports and fitness

Bradley said Stong’s is taking a wait-and-see approach when it comes to the shop’s own mask policy come July, and will make a decision based on what is best for staff and customer safety.

But he said if the company does decide to keep a requirement for masks indoors, “we’ll stand our ground on that.”

“If we find it’s too hard to enforce all our customers to wear masks and there’s too much pushback there, we’ll look for additional ways to protect our employees, whatever that might be,” he added.

“And if it’s N95 masks, if that’s what’s recommended by the health authorities, we’ll go that direction.”

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