Ontario lifts mask mandates in most spaces, but it's no 'light switch' for pre-pandemic life, expert says
Province reports 551 COVID-19 hospitalizations with 181 in intensive care on Monday
Ontario has lifted its masking requirements in most indoor settings including in schools, restaurants, gyms and stores as the province reported 551 COVID-19 hospitalizations and four more deaths on Monday.
The change comes a few weeks after the province lifted proof-of-vaccination rules and capacity limits.
Provincial politicians and top health officials say public health indicators have improved enough to remove mask rules, which have also been lifted in other jurisdictions across Canada and elsewhere around the world.
Premier Doug Ford has said he plans to keep wearing a mask in the provincial legislature "for the first few days" after the mandate lifts, stressing that people should be allowed to keep wearing masks if they want to.
Masks still mandatory in some settings
Select settings such as public transit, health-care facilities, long-term care homes and congregate care settings will keep mask mandates until the end of April, when the province plans to put an end to all remaining public health rules.
Dr. Peter Jüni, who heads Ontario's COVID-19 science advisory table, is still encouraging people to continue wearing their masks in busy indoor environments at this time.
"It's not black or white ... as long as we take it slow gradually, we should be OK," Jüni told CBC News Sunday. "It's just not pretending it's over, 'There's a light switch and tomorrow we go back to pre-pandemic.' We're not."
The province's top doctor has similarly stated that people must remain "kind, considerate and respectful" toward those who continue wearing a mask.
Dr. Kieran Moore, chief medical officer of health, has also said making masks optional does not signal that COVID-19 has disappeared or that the pandemic is over, but it means that Ontario has come to place where it can now manage the virus.
'They want a safe return from March break'
Some local health officials in parts of the province's north are encouraging residents to keep wearing masks in indoor public settings.
School boards that wanted more time to keep mask mandates have been ordered by Moore to adhere to the official end date, but the Hamilton-Wentworth school board has said it plans to keep the mask requirement until April 1.
Stephanie De Castro, a Grade 11 student at Senator O'Connor College School in Toronto, said "a lot" of students at her school walked into school wearing masks on Monday despite the mandate being lifted, including herself.
"I do think it's a little bit soon, especially after March break," De Castro told CBC Radio's Metro Morning on Monday.
"I'm sure myself and a lot of students will keep it on."
De Castro said she will continue to wear her mask in school because she wants to protect her six-year-old brother who has not received both doses of the COVID-19 vaccine and her 80-year-old grandmother who she lives with.
"I am tired of wearing a mask, I don't think it's normal ... but I do think it is too soon for my personal caution [and] for my family."
Evan Woo, a Grade 12 student at Earl Haig Secondary School in Toronto, said he will choose to wear his mask "depending on the setting."
"When it comes to lunch time, crowded hallways ... [I'm] probably going to keep my mask on just in case," Woo told CBC Radio's Metro Morning.
Some teachers will continue to keep their masks on after returning to classrooms following March break, said Jennifer Brown, president of Elementary Teachers of Toronto.
"Teachers understand they're going to have to live with COVID but they want a cautious approach to the return," Brown said. "[They] are very anxious about the unmasking situation. They want a safe return from March break ... many people have travelled during this time."
551 people hospitalized with COVID-19
Ontario is reporting 551 COVID-19 hospitalizations with 181 patients in intensive care on Monday.
The number of hospitalizations remained the same as the day before but have dipped from 602 exactly one week ago. Not all hospitals report data over the weekend, however.
The number of patients in ICU is slightly down from the 182 reported Sunday and 228 at this time last week.
The province reported four more deaths linked to the virus on Friday, pushing the official death toll to 12,336.
Another 1,217 new COVID-19 cases have also been logged through limited PCR testing, though the province's science table estimates that the current daily number of infections is between 15,000 to 20,000, based on wastewater data.
With files from The Canadian Press