Community COVID-19 News

UPDATE: Lawyer pushes council to legislate mandatory masks

If masks are required, they would go beyond what public health agencies have advised.

As government restrictions put in place in response to the coronavirus pandemic start to loosen, a local lawyer is pushing Guelph councillors to consider the possibility of the city requiring masks in public spaces where physical distancing is difficult, a move that would go beyond what public health agencies have so far advised.

Two Guelph boys wearing handmade cloth masks.

The messaging from Canadian public health agencies is that masks can, along with hand-washing and physical distancing, help slow the spread of the virus that causes the COVID-19 disease but have emphasized the conservation of masks for use by healthcare workers on the frontline.

After the U.S. Centre for Disease Control recommended that citizens start wearing homemade cloth face masks outside, Canadian officials started to say that cloth masks are beneficial in certain situations. 

But Canada’s top doctor Theresa Tam has stopped short of formally calling for facial coverings.

Health Canada has offered specific guidelines on the appropriate use of non-medical masks but say they have not been proven as always beneficial to the wearer and are not a substitute for physical distancing and hand washing. 

A synopsis by Public Health Ontario calls for further research. It stated that masks can be beneficial if worn correctly but if used incorrectly there can be “an increased infection risk through self-contamination”. It also says that requiring masks for the general populace may result in further mask shortages for frontline workers.

The World Health Organization said that people only need to wear a mask if they are taking care of a person with COVID-19 or are coughing or sneezing.

Guelph lawyer Rob Shirkey publicly supports mandatory masks across the Royal City and points to provincial law that he said backs such a proposal coming into force, explaining that, while politicians should rely on public health advice, avoiding questions will not help constituents.

“It’s perfectly sensible for local politicians to rely on the advice of local public health – I would expect nothing less – but it’s irresponsible to turn a blind eye to what other experts are saying and what jurisdictions around the world are doing,” he said.

“I mean, if you drive east or west of Guelph for the duration of a couple of podcasts, you’ll find yourself in Michigan or New York, both states that have mandated the use of masks in public.” Shirkey explained.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo on Tuesday berated those who refuse to don masks in public, saying “you could literally kill someone because you didn’t want to wear a mask” and asking “how cruel and irresponsible would that be?” 

Cuomo on April 15 said that face masks or coverings would be required in public spaces wherever physical distancing was not possible.

“Provincial legislation apparently enables our local medical officer of health and our mayor and council to require the use of masks in public spaces where physical distancing can be difficult,” Shirkey argued, pointing to sections of the provincial Health Protection and Promotion Act and Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act as proof.

Several councillors reached by GuelphWire responded that, while they personally encourage mask-wearing in public, they would not comment at this time on the municipal government putting a mandatory mask policy into effect.

Coun. Bob Bell said on Wednesday that when he visited Taiwan twice in February and March, he saw that masks were required for those travelling on transit, and pointed to the country’s general success in tackling the spread of the coronavirus.

The country has a population of 23 million people but has only suffered six deaths and the infection count stayed below 500, all while keeping most institutions, businesses and schools open.

But, Bell said, “to compel people to wear masks when they travel on transit without a mandate from Public Health Canada is difficult for a local politician to do.”

The Czech Republic and Slovakia became the first European countries to make masks mandatory in some public spaces when they enacted the policy in late March. Turkey, Austria and France joined them soon after.

In France in particular, schoolchildren are required to don masks and stores will have the right to ask shoppers to wear masks.

In Canada, stores such as Costco and Longo’s will not allow customers in without wearing a mask.

On the logistical side of mandating masks, Rob Shirkey said that the city could “coordinate with local sewists in a massive distribution effort like Ottawa Public Health is doing – it can really bring a community together.”

Over a dozen known artisans, small business owners and residents taken up cloth mask production for selling or donating to neighbours, essential workers or retirement homes, though the number of those making masks for their family and friends is likely much higher.

Shirkey said collaboration could extend to the commercial sector.

“Before proceeding to enforcement measures, they should also work with grocery stores to create signage and announcements,” the environmental activist and lawyer continued.

“As with any new measure, there would be a grace period for compliance before moving to stronger enforcement measures.”

A request for comment from Mayor Cam Guthrie and Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Public Health was not returned.

The original story reflected that Coun. Rodrigo Goller was investigating the possibility of bringing a motion to require masks in some parts of Guelph to council, citing Coun. James Gordon, however, this is inaccurate: he was instead communicating with staff in regards to an official response to this story.

(Reporting by Eli Ridder; Editing by)