Alberta recommending face masks, but not enforcing their use as economy relaunches

As the weather heats up and businesses reopen their doors, more and more Edmontonians are forming larger groups in public. With bigger groups out, more face masks might be needed to prevent COVID-19's spread.

Some businesses have begun requiring face masks be worn on their premises

People wear masks as they leave the Jean-Talon Market in Montreal in mid-May. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

As the weather heats up and businesses reopen their doors, more and more Edmontonians are going out in public.

Around the city, it was common to see lineups to get into stores on the weekend. Edmonton's farmers' markets, and businesses like Winners, Canadian Tire and HomeSense all saw long lineups outside their doors; at Ikea on Sunday afternoon, more than 100 people waited to get inside.

With these busier public spaces, more encouragement has come from public health officials to use face masks.

Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada's chief public health officer, addressed this on Wednesday, recommending face masks as an "added layer of protection" when physical distancing isn't possible. 

On Sunday, John O'Callaghan was out wearing a mask in public for the first time as he visited Edmonton's Downtown Farmers' Market. While adjusting the mask several times to stop it from slipping on his face, O'Callaghan said he supported making masks more common to keep people safe during an uncertain time, which is why he wears one himself.

"I want other people to feel safe around me and I don't want people to feel like I'm a skunk and they have to avoid me. That they can be within six feet and not feel threatened," he said.

Others echoed Tam's sentiment, especially out of concern about how dangerous a second wave of the pandemic could be. Joe Salacki, another Edmontonian, said he felt concerned when he sees crowded businesses with no masks.

"It's crucial. We don't want to have that second wave and have a big influx of COVID," Joe Salacki said.

It's about choice

But others believe wearing a face mask should be a personal choice.

Patsy Massoudi, another Edmontonian out on Sunday, said they should be worn in smaller spaces, but otherwise it should be a personal decision.

"I'm all about choice," Massoudi said.

In Alberta, the provincial government doesn't have any plans to make face masks mandatory. On Friday, Premier Jason Kenney said his government strongly encourages their use, but that making them mandatory creates too large of an enforcement problem.

"Our approach has been more of an advisory approach than a heavy-handed restriction approach," Kenney said on Friday. "There obviously have been some restrictions, but we want to trust people to exercise personal responsibility rather than policing everybody in a heavy-handed way."

As part of the province's recommendation, Kenney said the government has ordered 40 million masks and that they'll soon announce a distribution plan for them.

But simply encouraging their use won't be enough to make masks more widespread, Dr. Peter Silverstone said.

University of Alberta psychiatry professor Dr. Peter Silverstone worries too many people will choose to not wear masks. (Submitted by Dr. Peter Silverstone. )

Silverstone, a psychiatry professor at the University of Alberta, said many people often don't follow public health recommendations unless they're enforced. He cited seatbelts, drunk driving and smoking in public as examples of health guidelines where enforcement is needed to ensure they're followed.

"Without that, and we've seen this over and over again, most people or a sufficient number of people will not wear face masks," Silverstone said.

Normalized use needed

This isn't a popular message, Silverstone said. He believes many people would like to think providing factual information, while allowing the public to make their own decisions, is sufficient.

But informing the public isn't the same as persuasion, he said. Making masks more common in public will normalize their use.

"If you go into a store and everyone's wearing a mask, it becomes more socially acceptable," Silverstone said. That pressure from others actually makes a difference."

Silverstone said he's had many online interactions with health care and frontline workers as part of the Centre for Online Mental Health Support, which he helped create. He said they mostly support mandatory face masks and have a lot of anxiety that they're not being used more.

Some businesses have started requiring masks in their stores. Costco recently announced that it recommends all of its members and guests in Canadian stores to wear a facemask at all times on their premises, even while maintaining physical distance. T&T Supermarket also introduced a mandatory mask policy across all of its locations earlier this month.

Kent of Inglewood and Knifewear will also enforce a 100 per cent mask policy when these stores reopen in Edmonton on June 8, owner Kevin Kent said on Twitter on Friday.

If government and public health officials want to see even more face masks used amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Silverstone said mandatory consequences will be needed.

"It's not popular to tell people that they have to do things when they don't necessarily agree with you. I get that," Silverstone said. "But actually if we're going to stay healthy, then that's going to need to be the case."