Ontario's health ministry has rejected a call by some municipal leaders for a provincial mandatory mask policy, saying it "isn't necessary" to require all residents to wear face masks when they are indoors in public spaces in large urban centres.
In an email on Monday evening, Alexandra Hilkene, spokesperson for Health Minister Christine Elliott, said local medical officers of health have the power to implement mandatory face mask policies in their respective health regions under existing legislation.
Hilkene said the officers have the authority under Section 22 of the Health Protection and Promotion Act.
"Doing so at a local level would ensure responsiveness to community needs without applying the same policy to regions with little or no COVID," Hilkene said in the email.
The Ontario health ministry's email comes in response to a request by the mayors and chairs of the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA) earlier on Monday.
During a virtual meeting on Monday, the municipal leaders unanimously agreed to ask the province to adopt a mandatory mask policy to help stop the spread of COVID-19 and to support the reopening of the provincial economy. The entire region has moved into Stage 2 of the province's reopening plan.
According to the mayors and chairs, a mandatory mask policy across the province would have made a difference in the continuing fight against the disease.
"We are at a critical time in the fight against COVID-19. We must do everything we can to avoid flare-ups of the virus in our communities," the leaders said in a new release on Monday.
The mayors and chairs had noted that medical officers of health have said repeatedly that people should wear non-surgical face masks when it is not possible to physically distance.
"Public health officials have been clear that keeping your distance, at least six feet or two metres, from others is the best way to prevent the spread of the virus," the release said.
"Those same officials have also been clear that when people can't keep their distance, they should wear a fabric mask or face covering. Every person wearing a face covering properly is protecting those around them from the risk of virus spread."
Hilkene agreed, saying the ministry strongly urges people to wear a mask or face covering when physical distancing is challenging.
She said some people cannot tolerate a mask, such as those with asthma or other respiratory illnesses, and they should be encouraged to stay home as much as possible, maintain a physical distance from people outside their social circles, wash hands frequently and engage in proper cough and sneeze etiquette.
The mayors and chairs had said such an order could have had exceptions depending on the age of the person and individual health conditions.
Dr. Barbara Yaffe, Ontario's associate medical officer of health, said on Monday that every request made to the province would be considered, depending on the evidence presented.
Yaffe said the government is recommending that people wear face non-medical masks, indoors or outdoors, where they cannot distance physically from others by two metres.
When pressed on the issue, Yaffe told reporters that the province is "sticking with strongly encouraging" for now.
Enforcement of a mandatory mask order would be an issue across the province, she said. However, the number of cases could influence any change in policy, she added.
"If it's a provincial order, do we need to do this everywhere at the same time, or is this something that needs be done regionally, depending on how the public is behaving? It's something that we need to keep looking at," Yaffe said.
In the release on Monday, the municipal leaders said they will work with medical officers of health from local public health units to determine how best to lobby for the "universal wearing of non-medical masks" in indoor places, which would include businesses and transit systems.
They had noted that some municipalities already require mandatory mask wearing in certain circumstances.
For example, in Toronto, the TTC will require riders to wear face masks when riding subways, streetcars and buses as of July 2.
"Committing to regional action on face coverings is one more way the GTHA municipalities are working to support the restart of our economy, which is crucial to the economic success of Ontario and Canada," the mayors and chairs had said.
The municipal leaders said they are also continuing to call on the federal and provincial governments to offer financial support to municipalities for additional costs of the pandemic and revenues lost.