As Ontario's economy slowly begins to reopen, more people will be out and about. Premier Doug Ford encouraged Ontarians to stay two metres apart when they can, but when that's impossible — in shops, on transit and on the sidewalks — they should wear a non-medical mask, he said.
Ford, who hasn't always followed public health directions to the letter, said he wears one when he goes outside. “I think it’s the right thing to do,” he said at his daily afternoon press conference on Wednesday.
But there are exceptions to who should wear masks, Transportation Minister Caroline Mulroney said: children under two, those with difficulty breathing and those who can't take off the mask without help should not wear one.
Health Minister Christine Elliott said the reason officials initially recommended not wearing a mask was because wearing a non-medical mask doesn't necessarily prevent someone from catching the virus — it's more about reducing one's own droplets from spreading to other people. At the beginning, when people were being urged to self-isolate more, that was less of an issue than it is now, as stores begin to reopen, she said.
Masks should "completely and comfortably" cover one's nose and mouth, Elliott said. She also stressed that Ontarians should not use medical masks so as to leave them for frontline workers.
The province's chief medical officer of health, Dr. David Williams, said he was unsure of exactly how high the risk of catching COVID-19 is on transit, since there have been no international studies. Associate Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Barbara Yaffe said the initial public health recommendations still apply — wash your hands, clean frequently touched surfaces, and stay home if you feel ill.
Mulroney also gave some recommendations to transit agencies during the initial stage of reopening: admit fewer passengers than normal, use physical distance markers between seats, provide alcohol-based hand sanitizer, install plexiglass barriers, and clean high-touch barriers more often.
She said she's working with the Ontario Public Transit Association and other stakeholders on guidelines for agencies, "which will be coming soon."
Despite urging transit agencies to take fewer passengers, Ford once again declined to commit to financial assistance for outfits like the TTC, which have been decimated by a lack of ridership during the pandemic.
"We need the support of the federal government," he said, adding that the government is currently "in talks" with Ottawa on the subject.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has reiterated that transit is a provincial responsibility when asked about the issue.
Meanwhile, provincial Green Leader Mike Schreiner echoed the mask-wearing recommendation, but cautioned that the province's low testing numbers raise "serious questions about Ontario’s testing strategy as we start to reopen."
"Premier Ford made the decision to start reopening the province, but he has yet to show that he has a testing and contact tracing strategy to keep people safe,” he said in a statement.
The province completed 7,382 tests on Tuesday — far below Ford's 20,000 target — despite the premier's multiple exhortations that testing must improve. The low numbers and overall strategy has raised concerns among epidemiologists who point out that widespread testing is crucial to keep track of potential spikes as the province reopens.
There were 390 new COVID-19 cases on Wednesday for a total of 23,774 cumulative cases, according to provincial numbers. Of those, 18,190 have been resolved and 1,962 people have died — 1,224 in long-term care homes.
“I recognize that the numbers weren't there. It kind of shocked me too," Ford said, though he stressed that the government has a "strong plan to ramp up the testing."
Williams said the province has so far focused testing on long-term care homes.
"We do have the capacity to enhance it considerably," he said, adding that some Ontarians may have faced barriers to testing, such as being unable to access centres or unsure of where to go. He said officials are "trying to look at removing those barriers to ensure greater public access to those sites."