Ottawa and the surrounding regions will join a growing list of Ontario municipalities making masks mandatory in indoor public settings to control the spread of COVID-19, and the rules could come into effect as early as Monday.
Mayor Jim Watson, who is currently out of town, and Coun. Keith Egli announced the major public policy in a statement posted to Twitter on Friday afternoon, and later to the Ottawa Public Health website.
According to the statement, business owners told the city they're in favour of mandating cloth masks in indoor public settings, both for protection of staff and the public, but also because it would create a level playing field if all businesses had to follow the same rule.
More details are expected at a news conference Monday that will include officials from four surrounding public health units.
Ottawa behind other Ontario cities
A mandatory mask policy for the capital has been expected — Ottawa's medical officer of health, Dr. Vera Etches told reporters earlier this week that she was "seriously exploring" the idea — but the timing of the new rules is a bit unclear.
Ottawa is behind other Ontario cities including Kingston and Toronto, where mask requirements are already in place.
The official direction requiring residents to wear masks can come from one of two parties. A local officer of health can set rules for businesses in the Stage 2 economic reopening, or a city council can pass a temporary bylaw requiring people to wear masks, which is what Toronto's city council did late Tuesday.
It seems Ottawa will be using both strategies.
"What we're doing is kind of a two-step," said Egli, who chairs the Ottawa Board of Health. The board would move a motion to institute this sort of bylaw, he said, but not until the next council meeting, scheduled for July 15.
"So Monday, there will be an announcement from Dr. Etches whereby she will make it a requirement to wear a mask, and she can do that under the existing provincial order," Egli said.
"It's going to require the use of masks indoors [and] that will carry the city through until the next council meeting … and give our people in legal and in bylaw [time] to craft the bylaw."
For regions with multiple smaller municipalities, it's more practical for the medical officer of health to issue an order for mandatory masks, instead of relying on a bylaw. That seemed to be Dr. Paul Roumeliotis's plan; on Tuesday, the medical officer of health for the Eastern Ontario Health Unit told reporters he would "be instituting mandatory masking" as early as next week.
Now, his office says he'll provide an update of his plans on Monday, in the joint news conference with Etches.
Like other cities that have required mandatory non-medical or cloth masks be worn when accessing indoor public spaces, Ottawa will be granting exemptions from the new rules.
People with pre-existing medical conditions, such as asthma, children under two and people who require accommodation under the Ontario Human Rights Code will not have to wear masks.
"Please be prepared to see some individuals in public without cloth masks and we ask that you please be respectful," said the statement.
How, or even whether, the mask requirement will be enforced is still a major question mark. In Kingston, establishments that fail to respect the order could be fined up to $5,000. In Toronto, fines for violations have not yet been set by local courts, though the city solicitor there expects the figure to be "in the ballpark" of $750 to $1,000.
OC Transpo made masks mandatory on buses, trains and in stations last month, but the rule isn't being enforced through penalties. Toronto's transit system launched a similar mask-requirement policy on Thursday.