Wearing non-medical masks or cloth face coverings will be mandatory to access indoor services in places like Alexandria, Cornwall, Rockland and Casselman, and the new rules could come into effect as early as next week.
"The bottom line is that we will be instituting mandatory masking, particularly where people enter public places, businesses and so on," Dr. Paul Roumeliotis, medical officer of health for the Eastern Ontario Health Unit, said late Tuesday afternoon.
"The details are being worked out as we speak."
Masks, which should help prevent the spread of COVID-19, "will become obligatory shortly, likely, early next week" for most people, said Roumeliotis, although small children and those with some medical issues would be exempt.
There have been no new cases of coronavirus in the health region in the last week, and there are currently no institutional outbreaks. But Roumeliotis said he doesn't want people to become complacent, pointing to the recent outbreak in Kingston as an example of what could happen if people don't take precautions to prevent spreading the virus.
The health unit has been receiving complaints of people not covering their faces in stores and other indoor public places, as well as requests to make mask-wearing mandatory, he said. Roumeliotis encouraged the public to start wearing masks immediately.
"We want people to get used to it," he said.
Latest area to mandate masks
Ontario's medical officer of health decided against mandating masks across the province — which Roumeliotis said would have been his preference — leaving it instead to municipalities and regions to decide what to do locally.
Ottawa's chief medical officer of health, Dr. Vera Etches, said Monday she's in discussions with the mayor and other city officials on mandating masks in the capital, and will announce more definitive plans later this week.
The legislative vehicle to issue the order for mask-wearing differs from area to area, in the absence of a province-wide directive. In a large city like Ottawa, it makes more sense for councillors to approve a temporary bylaw, which is what Toronto's city council did late Tuesday.
For the Eastern Ontario Health Unit, which encompasses literally dozens of municipalities, each with its own bylaws, it's more practical for the medical officer of health to issue an order under the provincial Health Promotion and Protection Act.
Depending on what section of the act Roumeliotis issues the order under, he would either direct individuals to wear masks or he would direct businesses ensure people inside wear masks.
He said there would ultimately be penalties for those who break the rules, but stressed there would be a "grace period" and that he preferred education over enforcement.