British Columbia

B.C. doctor heads to court to demand mandatory mask rules

Dr. Wei Li, a family physician in Burnaby, B.C., is asking for a court injunction requiring the province to bring in a mandatory mask policy for indoor spaces like restaurants, schools and public transit.

Health officials have recommended masks, but resisted calls to make them mandatory indoors

A B.C. doctor is asking for a court injunction that would require the province to make masks mandatory for indoor spaces like restaurants, schools and public transit. Many businesses, like Capital City Classic Arcade in New Westminster, B.C., already require masks for patrons. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

A family doctor in Burnaby, B.C., is asking for a court injunction requiring the province to bring in a mandatory mask policy for indoor spaces like restaurants, schools and public transit.

Dr. Wei Li filed a notice of application in B.C. Supreme Court Thursday morning, calling for Health Minister Adrian Dix to stop allowing Phase 3 of the pandemic response to continue without requiring masks in indoor public environments. 

"Reopening communities while failing to require citizens to wear masks in public during a global pandemic is akin to allowing everyone to drive in a windowless car at 300 km/h in a hurricane without the need to wear a seatbelt," the notice of application says.

It states that Li "is persistently worried and anxious that her community, her loved ones and herself may contract COVID-19."

The application suggests masks should be required in "restaurants, bars, hospitals, public transit, retail stores, educational institutions and theatres, provided that there are appropriate exemptions available for infants and those who are unable to wear a mask."

It alleges that by not mandating masks, the province has contravened the Public Health Act, which forbids willingly causing a health hazard.

Concerns about asymptomatic spread 

During Phase 3, many services including movie theatres and churches have been allowed to reopen at reduced capacity, and the government is once again encouraging residents to travel within the province.

Right now, provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry generally recommends wearing a mask in situations like riding the bus, where physical distancing isn't possible.

She has so far resisted calls to make masks mandatory in indoor spaces, saying it's too difficult to enforce — especially when some people have legitimate reasons for not wearing a mask that may not be readily apparent to others.

In Thursday's daily COVID-19 briefing, Henry addressed Li's application, describing mandatory mask policies as a "heavy handed" approach to public health that she is not considering at this point. She said wearing a mask is a sign of courtesy and respect, but it remains the least effective method of preventing transmission of the virus, behind measures like physical distancing, limits on crowd size and good hygiene.

Dix declined to address the legal action while it is before the courts, but said he wears a mask in stores and on transit.

Provincial officials have so far resisted calls to make face masks mandatory in public spaces. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Li's application lays out the steady increase in new confirmed cases reported daily in recent weeks, and notes that B.C. has one of the lowest testing rates in the country.

"The prevalence of asymptomatic spread makes universal masking an essential means to stop the spread of COVID-19," the application reads.

It says the health minister is endangering public health by "failing to provide strong, clear and consistent recommendations" on the "urgent need" for widespread use of masks in public, indoor areas where risk of transmission is high.

Li also questions the strategy of emphasizing physical distancing over wearing masks, suggesting it isn't always possible to predict when someone might break the recommended two-metre barrier.

"When an individual realizes that someone has come too close to them, it may be too late to put on a mask and the transmission may have already occurred," the application says.

Epidemiologist says masks are 'common sense'

David Fisman, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Toronto, said he doesn't know enough about B.C.'s internal politics to say whether legal action is the best way to proceed.

But he described widespread mask use as "one of the easy wins" for getting the COVID-19 epidemic back under control.

"One of the frustrations with this disease is that we think about 50 per cent of all transmission of COVID happens in people before they have symptoms, and that's a very difficult problem to deal with," Fisman told CBC.

Everything from breathing to talking to singing and coughing produces droplets that could carry the novel coronavirus, and wearing masks can cut down significantly on droplets that reach other people.

As Henry revealed earlier this week, B.C.'s COVID-19 reproductive number has now jumped above one — which means each person who has the disease is now infecting more than one other person. That means conditions are being created where the curve of infection is no longer flat.

"Masks should be a way to take that reproduction number down a few notches," Fisman said. "It's a common sense way to maintain economic activity while also doing easy stuff to prevent the virus from transmitting."

The health minister has yet to file a response to Li's application.

Read the full notice of application:

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About the Author

Bethany Lindsay

Journalist

Bethany Lindsay is a B.C. journalist with a focus on the courts, health, science and social justice issues. Questions or news tips? Get in touch at bethany.lindsay@cbc.ca or on Twitter through @bethanylindsay.

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