British Columbia·Analysis

As COVID-19 case numbers soar in B.C., so does the push for a mask mandate

The government’s philosophy on masks has shifted since the first wave, but not enough to require them in public buildings.

The province believes a strong recommendation is better than a formal edict. But there’s more debate than ever

Masks are now mandatory on public transit in British Columbia, but not in public buildings. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

A lot of things are different in this second sustained wave of COVID-19 compared to the first: we have more information but more fatigue, fewer short-term worries about the economy but more long-term worries about mental health. 

At least one thing is the same between then and now. A mandatory mask rule is not being considered in the province of British Columbia.

"No," said Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry in her most recent live briefing on Thursday, a day when the province set a record for new daily cases (594), total active cases (5,793), and total hospitalizations (155). 

"We know that there are some people who are not able to wear masks, and we need to respect that, but most people can and do," she added, saying the recommendation to wear a mask in all indoor spaces would remain just that. 

The government's philosophy has shifted somewhat since the first wave — back then Henry wrote that mask wearing was "a matter of personal choice," but "will not protect you from COVID-19, nor is wearing one required of you if you can keep your safe distance from others."

Now, it's a firm recommendation everywhere and the law in a number of places, including public transit. 

Some would like to see things go further.

'A no-brainer'

"It seems like a bit of a no-brainer," believes Scott Lear, a health sciences professor at Simon Fraser University who created an online petition for a mandatory mask mandate for Metro Vancouver this week. 
 
"The science is behind it. Public opinion is behind it. The businesses are also behind it."

It's that last bit about businesses he believes is most crucial. This week, Henry said businesses can tell people they aren't allowed in their stores if they don't wear a mask — as Costco has recently done. 

But Lear believes that puts too much of an onus on most outlets. 

"This wasn't the approach for banning smoking indoors. We didn't ask each individual business to do that," he said. 

"And what it does is create that tension whereby … those businesses that are worried about their employees and their customers asking people to wear masks, fear that they might lose business to other retailers."

More harm than good?

At this point however, the province believes moving from a strong recommendation on masks to an actual provincial health order would cause more harm than good, and create more backlash and conflicts with people who aren't going to wear a mask no matter what the policies are. 

So do the leaders of various health authorities. It's one of the reasons Vancouver city council voted just last month against making masks mandatory in civic buildings, after hearing Patricia Daly, chief medical health officer of Vancouver Coastal Health, voice her opposition to it.

"I do think we need to consider public health," said Coun. Lisa Dominato, who did want mandatory masks. 

"I know I've had experiences recently going into public spaces … where people still aren't wearing them. And so what we're asking is that consideration."

It's why there seem to be more people like Lear in B.C. these days — people who believe that overall the province has done a good job containing the virus. People who, like Lear, were ambivalent toward masks in March and April. And, like Lear, people who have observed that some jurisdictions with mandatory mask policies still have high case counts.

But all those people also believe the government should require masks in public places at this point in the pandemic. 

"We're now seeing a rise in cases, and it's a question of why not use all the tools in our public health toolbox?" he said.

"They're not the silver bullet, but … it could make a difference." 

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