Toronto and Peel Region will enact municipal mask policies following the provincial government's refusal to wade into the public health issue.
Toronto Mayor John Tory, Mississauga Mayor Bonnie Crombie and Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown made simultaneous announcements on Tuesday morning that laid out expectations for wearing masks in some of Ontario's largest municipalities.
"This proposal makes sense from a health perspective, and it makes sense from a business perspective," said Tory, making the pitch for the measure ahead of it being added to council's agenda for approval. Following the recommendation from Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Eileen de Villa the measure would take effect next Tuesday after council voted in favour of it shortly after 5 p.m.
That means mandatory masks for people in Toronto in indoor spaces, except for those who have a medical condition that precludes it, or for people under the age of two.
"There is a growing body of evidence that non-medical masks can help stop the spread of COVID-19," added de Villa. She said that the city has made significant strides on its coronavirus caseload, and that citizens have made sacrifices as part of that effort, but that she would not want to see that progress squandered. "We need to move forward with caution and care...I do not take our progress lightly," she said by way of explaining why masks are necessary.
The mandatory measure will be in force until the next council meeting, which is scheduled for Sept. 30. At that point council could choose to renew the measure.
Masks will also be mandatory on Toronto transit as of Thursday.
Peel Region has a similar approach, with Regional Chair Nando Iannicca stating, "We have a handle on COVID-19 transmission right now. But the virus is not gone. We must continue to stop its spread and masks will help us do just that."
The decision by the City of Toronto and Peel to pursue this course of action follows weeks of the provincial government declining to do so, and comes about a month after some other major North American jurisdictions have implemented a variation of the policy.
While Premier Doug Ford personally recommended masks, he did not take the next step to make them mandatory indoors in some or all Ontario regions and instead deferred to local chief medical officers of health. Last Friday he explained that the reason he wouldn't take that step was that he felt the measure couldn't be enforced. "You just can't enforce it. You go up to the rural areas, way up north, and there's no cases, as much as we can tell them to wear masks, they aren’t wearing masks."
He added, "I think it's a good thing, when you're out in public, wear a mask, wear a face cover. And that's the reason we’re at the [improved] numbers we are because everyone's listening."
Tory conceded that having the province take the lead on this policy would have been the preferred approach, but in the absence of that initiative, he said the city had to act. "It would have been better," from the province, he said in comments at his morning press conference. "They've made for now a different decision, and we respect that."
While some residents might not like the inconvenience of wearing a mask when they go to the grocery store or pharmacy, Tory repositioned it as a new inclusion in a classic retail phrase. "No shirt, no shoes, no face covering, no service," he said, framing it as the non-negotiable rule for entry.
The role of face masks has evolved over the course of the coronavirus. In late January, Ontario Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Williams did not include it in his recommendations to mitigate the spread of the virus, explaining that some people may wear masks for cultural reasons, but most people don't handle and dispose of them correctly.
The World Health Organization took a while to express an openness to face masks, and changed its guidance in early June to advise people to wear them in public places, especially when in close proximity to one another. But it added that masks alone won't stop the spread of the coronavirus, and that it needs to be in conjunction with other public health measures.
While non-medical masks are now widely available — many convenience stores sell them — at the beginning of the pandemic they were not, and health officials were highly concerned about a run on personal protective equipment. In late January, QP Briefing first reported that medical-grade masks were being stolen at some Ontario hospitals, and the University Health Network had flagged the procurement of more masks as a concern.
Meanwhile in the U.S., wearing masks has emerged as a contentious issue, with polls showing more Democrats than Republicans expressing a willingness to do so, and President Donald Trump personally eschewing the measure.