A new order from Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit makes face coverings mandatory for anyone entering an indoor public space and using public transit.
However, there are a few caveats.
There are exemptions for those with health conditions, there are unlikely to be fines issued for non-compliance, and the mask rule is only in place as long as the province’s state of emergency remains since the order is made under the Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act.
The state of emergency expires July 15, just two days after the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit’s mask order takes effect.
The province could opt to extend the emergency, but Premier Doug Ford said today that he hopes not to extend it again.
Instead, Ontario’s Solicitor General Sylvia Jones said she will introduce a bill to extend emergency orders without the state of emergency remaining in place.
York Regional council is holding a special meeting Thursday, July 9 for Markham Mayor Frank Scarpitti’s motion to make face masks mandatory for everyone except children under two and those with medical conditions at indoor public spaces across York Region where physical distancing cannot be maintained.
The use of face coverings in indoor, publicly accessible settings became mandatory in the City of Toronto today.
Simcoe Muskoka’s mask order takes effect Monday, July 13, and is actually an order to businesses, organizations, municipal, federal, and provincial building operators, and churches in the region, requiring them to have a policy in place requiring masks on customers and employees.
Those businesses and organizations can turn people away for refusing to wear a mask, however the health unit does not require them to turn away the unmasked.
There are also exemptions. Nobody under the age of two should be wearing a mask, says the health unit, and kids aged two to five who won’t leave the mask on also don’t have to wear one.
Anyone with health conditions or religious beliefs “precluding them from wearing a mask” will also not be required to wear a mask, said Dr. Charles Gardner, medical officer of health for the region.
If you’re eating or drinking or doing intense physical activity, you do not have to wear a mask.
Employees behind barriers like plexiglass shields do not have to wear a mask.
Also, while a business can be fined for not having a policy requiring mask use indoors, the health unit doesn’t have resources to allocate to proactive enforcement.
“It’s typical of public health to take a softer, more progressive, educational approach,” said Gardner. “We chose a policy approach, it really directs the operator of the business to go through all the steps to make it work.”
Because it is a provincial order, police and municipal bylaw officers can issue fines for non-compliance.
According to Gardner, those fines can be from $750 to $1,000 for individuals and up to $10 million per day for corporations.
In Simcoe Muskoka today, the health unit reported no new COVID-19 cases, and there are no institutional outbreaks for the first time in weeks.
The last COVID-19-related death in Simcoe and Muskoka was May 19, and the reproductive number for the virus in the region is lower than one (meaning the rate of spread is less than one person per infected case).
The doctor said it would take more than nine months at the current rate of infection for local cases to double. That is the lowest doubling rate the region has seen since the start of the pandemic.
Still, Gardner cautioned there has been a resurgence in cases in Simcoe Muskoka in the last four weeks, which is now over.
"I have been actively promoting all of the control measures we need to be doing to flatten the curve,” said Gardner, noting those include handwashing, self monitoring and isolating if you are ill, physical distancing, and wearing a mask where physical distancing isn’t always possible.
However, Gardner said other countries have experienced “frightening” resurgences, particularly the U.S.
“With the few cases we have here, they could act as seeds to germinate a new wave if we’re not on our guard,” said Gardner. “At the end of the day, we need to work together.”
“We’re taking a slightly softer step,” said Gardner. “We’re hopeful this is enough to achieve a high degree of compliance. We’re hoping for about 80 per cent compliance.”
Gardner said he recommends a face covering such as a homemade mask, bandana, buff, burqa, or hijab that covers the nose and mouth. A face shield would not be considered a face covering under the health unit's orders.
However, he noted it could be used for those whose health conditions prevent them from wearing a mask, though that would not be required.
Restaurants, because they are serving food outdoors only, are not required to have customers or staff wearing masks, though Gardner said he highly recommends all restaurant staff wear masks.
A municipal government could make its own bylaw in support of the health unit order to wear a mask, and such a bylaw could extend beyond the province’s state of emergency.
Grey Bruce Health Unit also put out a notice today stating it would be issuing a mandatory face-covering order within the next 10 days.
— With files from Debora Kelly