by Brandon Mayer, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Last week, the Ontario government announced that mask mandates in the province would end for most settings on Monday, March 21, with an end to the mandates in nearly all remaining settings on April 27. Medical and non-medical masks and other face coverings have been a visible sign of the COVID-19 pandemic since news broke of the first positive cases of the virus being diagnosed in Canada in early 2020. However, masks only became mandatory in North Dundas on July 7, 2020, after the Eastern Ontario Health Unit announced that the mandate would be adopted regionally in conjunction with surrounding health units.
The regional approach was replaced with a provincial mask mandate, which applied to all indoor settings accessed by the public, on October 3, 2020. This provincial mask mandate was consistent with rules in other Canadian provinces, and many jurisdictions worldwide, and has remained in effect continuously until now.
Settings where masks will no longer be required include restaurants, retail stores, recreation complexes, and schools, among others. Hospitals, long term care homes, jails, and public transit will all see mask mandates continue until at least April 27. Public and expert opinions on the ending of mask mandates have been mixed. Public health advice has largely recommended that school students, at the very least, be allowed to go mask-free to help improve poor student mental health and return a degree of social normalcy for the millions of students who have been living through an event for the past two years which is unprecedented in their lifetime. Others have criticized the ending of the mandates in schools in particular, saying the students continue to need protection from the virus. Teachers’ Unions in the province have already voiced opposition to the provincial government’s announcement.
Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Kieran Moore, has reminded the public that wearing a mask is still an option, and that each person should consider the risks at the individual level, and make a decision from there. For example, immuno-compromised individuals might choose to continue masking, as may large numbers of Ontarians in crowded settings. Dr. Moore is encouraging the public to be understanding of those who choose to continue masking after the mandate is lifted.
In addition to the lifting of mask mandates, schools and child care centres in Ontario will have other mandates lifted on March 21, including the requirement to confirm screening daily, as well as the requirement to maintain cohorts. Children and adults alike in these settings will be allowed to go mask free, and adults will no longer be required to wear eye protection. Additionally, beginning on March 14, individuals working in schools and child care centres who are unvaccinated against COVID-19 no longer have to complete rapid testing three times per week to keep their jobs. It is not yet clear how individual school boards will apply the new rules when it comes to taking steps such as eliminating the use of recess “zones”.
The province has been clear that, while masks mandates are being lifted now, it does not guarantee that their use will not be necessary in the future if the pandemic worsens.