Masks recommended not (yet) mandated 

By Sue Tiffin

Mandatory mask wearing orders are spreading throughout Canadian cities, with governments and public health units in Ontario, including Toronto, Sudbury and Durham region, and Quebec issuing orders to residents to wear non-medical face masks on public transit, in businesses and indoor spaces beginning this month, in an attempt to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Wearing a mask in Haliburton County is recommended, but is still considered voluntary. The Haliburton, Kawartha, Pine Ridge District Health Unit said, “at this time, the most current message is that it is recommended that people wear a face covering in public where physical distancing is a challenge or not possible.”

To date, one person in Haliburton County has an active confirmed case of COVID-19, with nine local cases of the virus resolved. Positive cases of residents who are tested in Haliburton County but have a primary residence elsewhere are included in data from their home health unit. In the HKPR region, which includes Haliburton County as well as Northumberland and City of Kawartha Lakes, 202 cases have been confirmed as of press time, with 170 of those cases resolved.

At a June 18 HKPR District Health Unit board of health meeting, Mayor of Cobourg John Henderson, asked Dr. Lynn Noseworthy, the health unit’s medical officer of health, if there would be at some point a determination from the board to promote mask wearing as the region was moving into the province’s Phase 2 of reopening. He pointed toward the City of Guelph, which had the week before issued an order under the Health Protection and Promotion Act requiring those going into commercial establishments to wear a face covering, and said he was receiving many questions on that particular concern. 

“With regard to the wearing of masks, we’ve been consistent with messaging policy direction from the province and also from the federal government, in that the use of masks is currently recommended for the public when they’re out and they’re not able to maintain that six feet of distance from other people, or the two metres from other people,” said Noseworthy. “The public health messaging that we’re following to date is recommending that people stay home if they’re ill, that they wash their hands frequently and thoroughly, that they practice physical distancing, so staying six feet away from other people when they’re out and about, and if they can’t maintain that physical distance, that they wear a cloth mask or cloth face covering.”

In an email to the Echo last week, Noseworthy said, “These are the measures that will help keep us all healthy – more so than knowing that someone in your town tested positive.”

She said the public health unit is “monitoring the situation.”

Factors that need to be taken into account prior to issuing a Section 22 Class Order – making masks mandatory when visiting businesses – include whether the order is a reasonable approach to the situation, if the health unit staff can enforce the order, can all people tolerate wearing a mask, and whether people can afford to purchase masks, said Noseworthy last week.

“At this point in time I’m maintaining alliance with the provincial policy, with regard to the use of masks,” she said in the June 18 meeting. “When you consider whether or not we should be recommending masks, we have to look at, if it’s under an order, do we have the capacity to enforce the order? … Then if you require people to wear masks, for those of our population that can’t afford to buy masks, where are they going to obtain masks, and so it becomes an equity issue. So those are the sorts of things we need to think about, when we think about issuing orders around the use of masks … So we’ll be watching what the province is doing with regards to this issue.”

To date, the province has pushed back on a blanket order mandating masks, instead noting that individual health units can make that call. The website recommends a face covering, in particular a “non-medical mask such as a cloth mask” when physical distancing and keeping two metres apart is not possible, for example on public transit, in smaller grocery stores or pharmacies and when you are receiving essential services. It also notes that “face coverings will not protect you from getting COVID-19,” and recommends instead minimizing errands to a single trip where possible, avoiding close contact with others and keeping at least two metres from others outside your household, washing hands regularly or using alcohol-based hand sanitizer and practicing proper cough and sneeze etiquette.  

Children under the age of two, anyone who has trouble breathing and anyone unconscious, incapacitated or otherwise unable to remove the mask without assistance should not wear a mask.

“Some municipalities across the province are now beginning to issue bylaws requiring mandatory mask wearing while residents are shopping in businesses or riding transit,” Noseworthy told the Echo last week. “I understand this is currently being discussed by some of our [region’s] municipalities and they would also need to review the above considerations and look at how they would enforce it from a municipal perspective.”

Noseworthy noted in the board of health meeting that as with other policies and decisions made since COVID-19 first started spreading, “information has been evolving and policies have been changing.”

As the province relaxes shelter in place measures initiated in March, the health unit has been working with businesses wishing to reopen.

“The health unit is directing workplaces and employees to wear a mask if they are unable to maintain a two metre (six foot) distance from clients/customers and there are no physical barriers in place to protect the staff and customer,” said Noseworthy. “Depending on the setup of a food establishment, it’s also strongly recommended servers and waiters/waitresses wear masks as they bring food to the customers.”

Noseworthy said it was essential for any workplace to have the correct personal protective equipment required to keep staff safe during the pandemic.

“Workers must use protective equipment as required by their employer and be trained in its proper fit, use, storage, cleaning, maintenance and limitations,” she said. Those with concerns regarding business operations were asked to contact the health unit.  The Haliburton Highlands Family Health Team also spoke to mask use in helping to prevent the spread of COVID-19. 

“You should wear a mask that fits snugly over your nose and mouth to prevent viral transmission from your [mouth] any time you are near anybody who is not part of your household,” wrote the Haliburton Highlands Family Health Team in a column for the Echo last week. “You should stay six feet from anyone who is not masked. [They] may infect you if they are not masked. Be courteous and safe: wear a mask. Ask others to do the same. You should minimize your time in indoor spaces with multiple people. You should move as many activities as possible outdoors. You should wash your hands frequently. And you should stay home, away from even your own family members, if you feel sick.”

“…[A]nother person’s breathing, talking, singing, coughing, could spread the virus,” added Dr. Norm Bottum. “Wearing a mask will minimize your risk of spread ing viruses in this manner. Wearing a well-fitting mask may also reduce your risk of picking up viral particles.”

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