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Why experts are mixed on if it's too soon for Canadians to ditch masks

Grabbing a mask on the way out the door has become a daily routine for many Canadians, but it's no longer mandatory in some provinces. While experts agree things are looking up, the delta variant has some worried that now isn't the time to de-mask.

As COVID cases drop and some provinces relax mask rules, delta variant has some experts worried it's too soon

A woman wearing a face mask walks past a 'now open' sign in Ottawa in July 2020. Protective masks have become part of daily life for many Canadians but are no longer mandatory in some provinces. The delta variant has some experts worried now isn't the time to relax mask rules. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Canada continues to be one of the world leaders when it comes to getting at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine into arms, but even as case counts drop, experts are divided about whether now is the right time to relax mask requirements.

Last year, when the pandemic turned life upside down and our world was suddenly divided by plexiglass, physical distancing and masks, many would have never dared to hope that by summer 2021, Canada would be faring well enough to have this debate. 

Yet some provinces have already lifted mask mandates, along with a host of other public health restrictions. Both Alberta and British Columbia relaxed their rules on Canada Day. Saskatchewan isn't far behind, with a plan to drop all public health orders, including mandatory mask use, set for July 11. 

Generally, infectious disease specialists in this country agree that things are looking up — jabs are getting into arms and COVID-19 case counts are down. But the highly transmissible delta variant, combined with the fact that less than half the country is fully vaccinated has some worried that now isn't the time to de-mask.

Weighing variants, vaccines and community spread

According to Caroline Colijn, an infectious disease researcher and professor at Simon Fraser University, there's no simple number of vaccinations that determines when masks are no longer necessary. Instead, she said, it's a question of weighing several factors, including variants, vaccination rates and community spread. 

"I think we should be aiming to get really high rates of full vaccination — 90 to 95 per cent would give us a strong protection against this variant and other possible future variants."

Colijn has been using data to mathematically model the trajectory of COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic. She said she and other infectious disease experts are closely monitoring the delta variant.

Still, it's not all doom and gloom. A new Canadian study, which is not yet peer reviewed, suggests even one dose of the vaccine might be more effective against the delta variant than previously thought

Colijn said keeping an eye on data like that is important, as provinces weigh whether masks might still be necessary until more people are fully vaccinated.

Personally, Colijn is playing it safe for now. She lives in B.C., where masks are no longer required, but still recommended.

"I'm still in the habit of, 'this is an indoor public venue and I'm going to wear a mask.'"

Dr. Kwadwo Kyeremanteng, an Ottawa intensive and palliative care physician, says he believes the easing of mask restrictions is a positive move, at least in parts of Ontario. (Toni Choueiri/CBC)

Doctors divided on masks depending on region

From a frontline perspective, Dr. Kwadwo Kyeremanteng thinks masking rules could be relaxed, at least in parts of Ontario.

Kyeremanteng is an intensive and palliative care physician at the Ottawa and Montfort hospitals. He told CBC's The Current that with Ottawa's level of vaccinations and community spread, he was leaning toward viewing the relaxation of mask requirements as a positive move.

"I'm a big fan of masks," he said. "But I think we're in a situation now, where we've got to [be] thinking about which restrictions we can come off of."

LISTEN | Doctors and business owners discuss mask rules:

In Alberta, where less than half the population has been fully vaccinated, Dr. Stephanie Smith said she's not confident it's enough to justify removing masks.

"Personally, I feel that masking should continue at least in public spaces, given that we have just come off of an incredibly large third wave," said Smith, an infectious disease physician at Edmonton's University of Alberta Hospital.

She worries it will be difficult to reverse course if the situation changes, making masks necessary again.

"I think there will be a lot of resistance to going backwards."

A customer wearing a mask exits a store in the SoHo neighbourhood of New York City in May. As governments relax mask requirements, business owners are having to decide on face-covering policies for themselves. (John Minchillo/The Associated Press)

'Politicians are motivated by being re-elected'

The mixed messaging around masks isn't limited to Canada.

The World Health Organization continues to urge everyone to wear masks — even those who are fully vaccinated.

Meanwhile, England is expected to do away with its mask requirements later in July, and Americans who are vaccinated can go about much of their lives mask-free in many states.

"You can't have a country like the U.S. saying it's totally OK, Canada saying it's not OK, and both of them being right," said Simon Bacon, a behavioural medicine professor at Concordia University in Montreal, who studies how people respond to public health policy.

"Politicians are motivated by being re-elected and people don't like wearing masks." 

He warned that not having consistent messages and policies creates "holes where people can decide for themselves." 

WATCH | B.C. businesses adjust as province relaxes rules on masks: 

B.C. businesses are trying to adjust to new mask rules

5 months ago
2:32
As more Canadians get fully vaccinated, B.C. has lifted its mask mandate and it's left some businesses shifting their mask requirements to requests. CBC's Isabelle Raghem has the details. 2:32

Business owners wade into debate

The lack of consistency and confusion over what's safe and what's not means business owners in provinces that have lifted mask requirements now have to wade into the debate.

Kevin Kent owns Knifewear, a specialty knife shop with locations in B.C., Alberta and Ontario, and Kent of Inglewood, a men's grooming supply store with locations in Alberta and Ontario.

On Twitter this week, he reminded customers that despite relaxed restrictions in some provinces, his shops are still a mask-friendly zone.

"We don't argue with anyone or demand they wear a mask," he said. "We have a sign at the door and a pile of masks."

Kent said asking customers to wear masks seemed like the responsible thing to do, since not everyone on his staff is fully vaccinated.

Edmonton's Fleisch Delikatessen is taking a similar approach, asking customers to continue to mask up indoors. Co-owner Katy Ingraham told CBC's The Current she thinks it's "a little bit too early" to stop wearing masks. 

"I think as we've seen throughout, the Alberta provincial response to COVID has been largely political." 

Ingraham said she hopes she's wrong, but she's worried removing the mask mandate could have severe consequences in Alberta. 

"To have something as minimal an intervention as wearing masks just completely removed, just feels very rushed. 

"It definitely makes me nervous."

As restrictions relax, University of Alberta infectious disease expert Dr. Lynora Saxinger advises people not to forget about other precautions.

"I would still encourage people to remain cognizant of distancing and ventilation and handwashing, even if you do drop the mask."

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