The Ontario government says it will be lifting the mask mandate in many indoor public settings on March 21.
Dr. Kieran Moore, Ontario’s chief medical officer of health, made the announcement on Wednesday, saying the move is another step in how the province can “live and manage COVID-19.”
Masks will no longer be required in most social settings such as restaurants, gyms, large event spaces and even schools.
However, the mask mandate will remain in place for higher-risk settings such as transit, long-term care, retirement homes, hospitals, shelters, jails and congregate care and living settings.
This move comes as Ontario has already lifted all capacity limits and proof of vaccination at the beginning of March.
The government will be extending the Reopening Ontario Act (ROA) on March 28, as it is set to expire, for another 30 days. Officials said this is the final extension for the act to invoke emergency orders.
The province said it is removing masking requirements in all remaining settings, as well as any other directives and orders, on April 27.
After this date, masks will not be mandatory but will be encouraged and highly recommended for those who are immunocompromised, at high risk, or choose to still use them, officials said.
“And anyone who wants to wear a mask … they’re more than welcome to. It’s going to be up to the people,” Premier Doug Ford said Wednesday at an unrelated news conference in Brantford, Ont., just minutes before Moore was set to speak.
Ford also said local medical officers of health who want to implement their own mask mandates in their specific regions will have to go through Moore.
Officials noted that although masking is not required under the emergency orders, the Ministry of Health guidelines will remain in place for settings such as hospitals, where staff will be required to wear personal protective equipment. Hospital organizations and other high-risk organizations can also choose to implement their own policies, the government said.
“A process is now underway to gradually revoke all directives and instructions by the end of April with a focus on moving away from emergency measures to ongoing operations,” Moore said. “Moving away from reliance on provincial emergency direction through mandatory requirements.”
In addition, on March 14, the government is revoking another directive that mandated immunization policies in long-term care homes. The province said it will continue to provide rapid tests and that organizations can retain their own policies.
When asked by reporters if the government would consider re-implementing a mask mandate in the fall or winter as colder weather moves in, Moore said they are looking at certain criteria.
“We’re going to maintain a robust surveillance system going into the fall,” Moore said. “We’re going to have a testing strategy that will allow, through PCR, to detect multiple different viruses. So whether it’s influenza A, influenza B, RSV (respiratory syncytial virus) and/or COVID-19.”
He said that surveillance system will run through emergency departments and primary care, as no changes to PCR testing have been made for the general public.
“If we’re seeing multiple different viruses circulating, and we can anticipate those four … to co-circulate, we would make recommendations to mask at that time, if we see an increasing burden on the hospital system, despite potential immunization strategy for influenza and/or for COVID. We may make a move from a recommendation to a mandate for masking.
“But that would follow data, would follow the surveillance, the circulation of those viruses and the impact on the hospital before we would ever make a recommendation to mandate.”
Moore re-iterated that masking is now “a choice” based on an individual’s “risk assessment” and not a mandate after March 21, as Ontario is past the peak of the Omicron wave in January.
“The risk now is less than it was in the first, second or third week of January…. Our public health recommendations have to be proportionate, have to be balanced and you have to recognize you can’t mandate masking forever,” Moore said.
Meanwhile, some have criticized the move, saying it’s too soon to drop the mask mandate.
The Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) calls it “premature” to remove masking in schools and said it risks further disruption and jeopardizes safety.
“We have crowded classrooms, air quality concerns, unknown COVID-19 case counts in schools, and only a 55 per cent first-dose vaccination rate among elementary students five to 11,” ETFO president Karen Brown said. “These children are in Ontario schools right now and they deserve to be protected, as do their families and the school staff who support them.”
Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca also echoed the same sentiments that it is not the right time to remove masks in schools.
“Given Ontario’s reopening and March break, it makes sense to wait at least two weeks after the end of the break to review those indicators and make a decision for Ontario schools,” Del Duca said.
Ontario’s Green Party leader issued a statement shortly after the announcement asking Ford to provide data that the decision on masking is based on science and not politics.
“COVID-19 is an airborne virus. It’s highly contagious. And experts are clear that masks are a crucial protection against spread,” Mike Schreiner said.
“I ask the Premier: show us the data,” Schreiner continued. “Ontarians deserve to know whether this decision is based on science and not politics — especially when we learn that the Science Table was not consulted.”
The province has also updated its isolation guidelines for close contacts.
The new guidance, effective Wednesday, indicates that no isolation is required for non-household contacts of a COVID-19-positive case.
Household contacts who are aged 18 or older and have a booster shot or are younger than 18 but fully vaccinated are also not required to isolate. As well, any household members who have recently tested positive in the last 90 days do not need to isolate.
Those household contacts who don’t meet the criteria have to isolate, officials said.
Those members, as well as for non-household contacts, are being asked to self-monitor for symptoms, wear a mask and avoid activities where mask removal is necessary and not visit those in high-risk settings or at a higher risk of illness for 10 days after exposure.
Previously, vaccinated Ontarians were required to isolate for five days, with non-vaccinated for 10 days, for being a close contact.
For those who are immunocompromised, self-isolation was 20 days but is now reduced to 10 days. Additional precautions such as masking, avoiding highest risk settings and vulnerable individuals for an additional 10 days.
— with files from Matthew Bingley