Kitchener-Waterloo

Mandatory masks a 'small and hopefully temporary' measure people can handle, health official says

A week after issuing an order for people to wear masks or face coverings in most businesses, Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Public Health medical officer of health Dr. Nicola Mercer says the only thing she would change is giving businesses more of a heads up that the order was coming.

Local decision has spurred national conversation on mandatory masks and face coverings

A server at Brothers Brewing in downtown Guelph delivers drinks to a table of customers sitting on the patio. Masks or face coverings are mandatory in businesses in Guelph, Wellington County and Dufferin County, although patios are exempt from the order. (Kate Bueckert/CBC)

If Dr. Nicola Mercer could change anything about issuing an order making it mandatory for people to wear masks or face coverings, it's that she would have given businesses more of a heads up.

Mercer is the medical officer of health for Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Public Health. She issued the order last week and revised it on Friday to clear up exactly which businesses require masks or face coverings. For most people, it means wearing a mask to go shopping or to get a haircut. Restaurant and bar patios are exempt from the order because they're outside.

"I think if I could have given our businesses a little bit more heads up, if I could have changed that, I absolutely would have wanted to," Mercer said in an interview a week after issuing the order.

"I think that of all the things, allowing people a little bit more time to get accustomed to the idea and to prepare would have been the ideal circumstance."

National conversation

Guelph, Wellington County and Dufferin County have been thrust into a national conversation about mask wearing since Mercer made the order, with people across the country arguing for and against the move.

So far, Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph is the only health unit to make masks and face coverings mandatory.

"I certainly knew that we would be one of the first and I know that this is a continuing and ongoing conversation," Mercer said.

A group called Masks4Canada has written an open letter to health officials and politicians in Ontario and at the federal level asking for face coverings to be mandatory inside buildings, in crowds and on transit.

In many cities, including Ottawa, Brampton and Guelph, masks are mandatory on transit services. The Toronto Transit Commission says masks will be mandatory as of July 2, although it did note that compliance will be monitored but not strictly enforced.

Riders step into and off of a train in Ottawa, where masks are now mandatory on transit. Whether masks or face coverings should be mandatory as a measure to curb the spread of COVID-19 has become a conversation across the country. (Natalia Goodwin/CBC )

Some stores, including Longos and T&T Supermarkets have also told customers they must wear face coverings.

In neighbouring Waterloo region, regional councillors debated how to handle asking people to wear masks. Acting medical officer of health for the Region of Waterloo, Dr. Hsiu-Li Wang, has not called for mandatory masks or facial coverings. Instead, she says she plans to canvass local business owners before making any decisions or orders.

North Dumfries Mayor Sue Foxton said during a recent committee meeting she has also heard from businesses that want customers to wear masks and the customers argue against it.

Foxton said business owners are upset because "it's a fight that they feel they're not being backed by their communities."

'Small and hopefully temporary behaviour change'

The Public Health Agency of Canada recommends wearing a non-medical mask or face covering in public places, especially crowded ones, when physical distancing isn't possible.

Mercer likened wearing a mask to when people were told they could no longer smoke in restaurants.

"When we said you couldn't smoke indoors and in bars and restaurants or on patios at bars and restaurants, I mean, there were many people who were really upset. 'I'll never go to a bar and restaurant and it's the death of the restaurant industry,'" Mercer said.

"But now, as time goes on, it's really hard to imagine being in an indoor restaurant or bar and having people around you smoking."

She said people get accustomed to things after time, although she also said, "I actually hope that we don't have to spend a long time getting accustomed to wearing a face covering." 

She said she will continue to monitor cases in Wellington County, Dufferin County and Guelph. There are currently 441 cases, with 341 marked as resolved. Thirty-five people have died from COVID-19 in the area covered by the health unit.

If cases drop significantly or even cease over a two week period, Mercer says she would consider revoking the mandatory mask order.

"But in the broader scheme of things, it is still a small and hopefully temporary behaviour change that will allow us to continue to safely reopen," she said.

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