Masks mandatory as of midnight in Ottawa, region

·4 min read
Masks mandatory as of midnight in Ottawa, region

Residents of eastern Ontario, including the City of Ottawa, will be required to wear non-medical masks in indoor public places to prevent the spread of COVID-19 starting at 12:01 a.m. Tuesday, according to the medical officers of the local public health units.

The Eastern Ontario Health Unit and the Leeds, Grenville and Lanark District Health Unit both implemented the new policy Tuesday morning, alongside Ottawa Public Health.

The Renfrew County and District Health Unit will make masks mandatory next week.

"It's so important that we have as similar as possible requirements," said Dr. Vera Etches, Ottawa's medical officer of health, pointing out that many people travel between regions.

Ottawa and the surrounding region are the latest in a growing list of municipalities, such as Kingston and Toronto, that are mandating masks be worn in order to access indoor services and enter public facilities.

The medical officers have the power to make masks mandatory under the current provincial order that allows local health officials to set conditions for businesses to operate during Stage 2 of Ontario's reopening plan.

The onus will be on businesses to "do their part" by having mask-wearing policies, training staff and posting visible signs about the new requirements, said Etches, but "we do not expect them to be the police."

Ottawa Public Health polling has found that most people already own at least one mask.

WATCH: Masks to be mandatory in enclosed public spaces

Some exemptions

There will be exemptions for people who cannot wear masks, such as those who have trouble breathing, those who can't take their masks off safely on their own, and children under two. Businesses won't be expected to challenge customers who aren't wearing masks.

"Encourage people to be kind when you see someone not wearing a mask," Etches urged residents. "I think there's a bit of fear about how people will be treated if they don't wear a mask, and we need to dispel that."

Officials underlined that the mandatory mask policy will generally be enforced "in good faith," even if that means some people might lie about not being able to wear a mask. They also pointed out that while a face shield is not an equivalent replacement for a nose- and mouth-covering mask, it may provide some protection for those who aren't able to wear masks.

Although officials took pains to repeat that they're looking to educate rather than penalize the public, local authorities could still issue fines under the powers granted them through the provincial state of emergency. However, those fines, ranging from $500 to $800, would be directed at businesses, not individuals.

It's a minor inconvenience. It will allow us to march on, to get to a new normal, where we can resume most of our daily activities. - Dr. Robert Cushman, Renfrew County and District Health Unit

In Ottawa, the medical officer's directive will be replaced by a temporary bylaw that city council is expected to approve at its meeting on July 15.

While the bylaw is not expected to change the requirements for mandatory masks, a municipal bylaw can be more nuanced when it comes to any eventual enforcement.

For example, a bylaw can call for formal written warnings and escalating fines for businesses that refuse to abide by the mask-wearing policy. It's still unclear whether a new bylaw would fine businesses, individuals or both.

Francis Ferland/CBC
Francis Ferland/CBC

It's not often that the public health officers make a joint order, underscoring the importance of the issue across the region. The medical officials said getting used to wearing masks now will put the entire region in a better position to deal with any second wave of COVID-19 that may arrive in the fall.

"It's a minor inconvenience," said Dr. Robert Cushman, the acting medical officer for the Renfrew County and District Health Unit. "It will allow us to march on, to get to a new normal where we can resume most of our daily activities."

Dr. Paul Roumeliotis of the Eastern Ontario Health Unit (EOHU), and Dr. Paula Stewart of the Leeds, Grenville and Lanark District Health Unit also participated in Monday afternoon's news conference.