Masks will once again be mandatory in indoor public spaces and schools in Newfoundland and Labrador.
Dr. Janice Fitzgerald, the province's chief medical officer, made the announcement at a unscheduled COVID-19 briefing Friday afternoon.
"Masking will not be forever.… This is a small action that we can all take to give us that extra layer of protection to keep our schools, communities and province safer and open until we can get our vaccination rates higher," said Fitzgerald.
"I know this is not where any of us wanted to be today."
The mask mandate was dropped about five weeks ago, on Aug. 10. It had been in place since Aug. 24, 2020.
Fitzgerald cited the high transmissibility of the delta variant for once again implementing a mask mandate.
She also pointed to the rapidly worsening fourth wave in other provinces.
"Our [epidemiology] may be good, but our risk for importation may still be high," she said.
As of 12:01 a.m., masks will be mandatory in dozens of places, including:
Public transit: taxis, car services, buses, public areas of ferries.
Businesses, malls, community markets.
Common areas of offices that are accessible to the public.
Places of worship and funeral homes.
Cinemas, performing arts centres and other venues.
Rental rooms or venues used to host gatherings.
Sports-related clubhouses, arenas and fitness centres.
Bingo halls, lounges, restaurants.
There are exemptions to the mask rules: kids under the age of five do not need to wear them, and they're not needed for moderate physical activity or when someone is eating and drinking.
"As we have said many times in the past, we will always be dynamic and flexible when it comes to measures and approaches with respect to COVID-19. … and that's what we're doing today when it comes to masks," said Premier Andrew Furey.
Schools and mask rules
In K-12 schools, masks will be required on school buses and common areas of schools
Students in grades 4 to 12 will be required to wear masks at all times.
Staff in schools will be required to wear masks too.
Fitzgerald said one of the reasons she is bringing back mandatory mask-wearing is to keep kids in school. Since kids under 12 can't be vaccinated, masks are one way to keep the risk of COVID-19 low for that age group.
As before, masks will not be mandatory in schools for children in Grade 3 and under, although Fitzgerald said younger children are still encouraged to wear masks if possible.
Another reason for mandatory masking? To take the pressure off public health resources.
"Public health capacity in the regional health authorities is strained and cases have been increasing over the past number of weeks and on average each case has a much higher number of contacts than they did some months ago and more contacts are deemed to have been high-risk."
Since Aug. 27, the Health Department has issued about 60 potential COVID-19 exposure advisories, resulting in longer waits for testing. Wearing a mask will reduce the risk of exposure, Fitzgerald said.
Health Minister John Haggie said daily testing has increased fivefold as a result of the exposure advisories, and the province has had to call in additional contact tracers since the mandate was lifted. He said the mask mandate will ease the pressure on the province's COVID-19 testing system.
"We've said all along that COVID was a changing environment and this is just another change, unfortunately, in the road."
Change in epidemiology
In a late August interview with The St. John's Morning Show, Dr. Janice Fitzgerald said the mask rules had been dropped because the province's caseload was so low and vaccination rate was so high.
Recently, however, Newfoundland and Labrador COVID-19 case numbers have climbed steadily. The province currently has 38 active cases, including 4 announced on Friday. However, there were 15 recoveries and no one is currently in hospital with the virus.
Fitzgerald said the masks will provide a layer of protection that is particularly important in unvaccinated "pockets" of the province. She said the decision to reintroduce masking was based on Newfoundland and Labrador's epidemiology and that of the other Atlantic provinces
She said health officials saw no reason to delay reintroducing the mandate.
"When we feel we need to make a decision we need to make a decision," she said.
Meanwhile, Friday's briefing also confirmed that vaccine passports will be mandatory for non-essential recreational activities after several days of confusion.
That's different from what Health Minister John Haggie said just two days before, when he essentially said it would be up to businesses if they wanted to use it.
Haggie said Wednesday he expected the passports to roll out in the form of a mobile app, with a printable alternative, in early October.
On Friday, Furey again implored people to get vaccinated, and warned of online misinformation.
"Google is not a doctor," he said.