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Masks may not be mandatory for Ontario public servants when they return to work: documents

Ontario public servants may not be required to wear face masks in all instances when they return to work, according to provincial government documents obtained by CBC Toronto.

When access to ministry space is controlled, then it is not considered public space, documents say

An aerial view of Queen's Park by drone. Documents obtained by CBC News say masks won't be mandatory for Ontario public servants when they return to work. (Ed Middleton/CBC)

Ontario public servants may not be required to wear face masks in all instances when they return to work, according to provincial government documents obtained by CBC Toronto.

In the "Guide to Planning for the Gradual Reopening of the Workplace," dated Friday, Aug. 7, the government says masks will not be mandatory unless employees are in indoor public spaces.

The guide notes that Ontario cities and regions have made masks mandatory in enclosed public spaces, while most public health units have recommended that masks should be worn in public spaces.

"When access to ministry/working space is controlled (security cards, locks, etc.) then it is generally not considered public space," the guide says.

Alexandra Hilkene, spokesperson for Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott, said the guide is a work in progress. The province has not yet finalized a return to work plan for the Ontario Public Service (OPS) for employees currently working at home, she said.

"The attached documents are in no way final," Hilken said in an email on Tuesday. "They were prepared to begin the conversation internally as to what a return to work could look like. While initial planning is underway, no final direction has been provided to the OPS around a potential return to work for those working remotely."

The documents obtained by CBC News include a safety plan template and a readiness checklist. Instructions in the safety plan template also do not insist that employees wear masks while at work.

The "Personal Protective Equipment" section of the safety plan template says, "Where you cannot use engineering and administrative controls to maintain physical distance, personal protective equipment (PPE) will be needed."

The plan acknowledges most public health units have advised wearing masks in public spaces, but goes on to say that where workspaces with controlled access aren't considered public spaces. 

Raywat Deonandan, an epidemiologist at the University of Ottawa, is in favour of masks being mandatory for Ontario public servants when they return to the office.

"To simply say, 'If a key card allows you entry, the mask rules no longer apply,' is troubling to me," Deonandan said on Tuesday.

"I think the mask prescription should be across the board in the event of an inability to socially distance."

The guide says certain rooms, such as kitchens and mail rooms, will have a one-person limit.

Deonandan said such restrictions will make a difference. "As long as the spacing is enforced and the mask wearing is a little more than highly encouraged, things should be okay," he added.

The guide includes a section entitled "Support," which is an action plan in case of potential, suspected or positive COVID-19 cases.

Deonandan said he was impressed by the section. "I looked very carefully at their procedures on what to do if someone tests positive and it's fairly robust. I'm kind of impressed by that."

According to the documents, workers should continue to work from home and meet virtually where possible. Where workers have to come in, it recommends barriers, shifting schedules and using outdoor spaces.

One document suggests ministries should try to finalize their protocols by mid-August.
 

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