Make OC Transpo mask policy about education, not enforcement, advocates say

OC Transpo's proposed mandatory mask policy is raising questions among advocates and legal experts about its scope and how it would be enforced if someone refuses to wear one.

The mask requirement is included in a staff report going before the city's transit commission Monday that lays out the agency's plan to increase service as the economy slowly reopens.

Staff recommend all riders and employees be required to wear a non-medical cloth mask or other face covering while inside a bus, train, Para Transpo vehicle or station as of June 15.

"I do think it's an excellent idea for people to wear masks," said Kari Glynes Elliott, board member with advocacy group Ottawa Transit Riders. "[But] we have to realize that some people who ride transit may be vulnerable in ways that aren't necessarily visible — they may not be able to wear masks."  

Elliott said OC Transpo should focus on education, rather than enforcement, and that the policy should be accompanied by a public awareness campaign that espouses the health benefits of mask usage.

"Waving fingers at people and saying, 'You must wear a mask!' — [it] may be rather difficult to make that happen," said Elliott.

Olivier Plante/CBC

Enforcement could lead to overreach, legal expert says

The report says wearing masks is necessary to ensure health and safety once ridership increases to normal levels and physical distancing is no longer possible on OC Transpo buses and the LRT. It still needs to be debated and approved.

Michael Bryant, national director of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, said policymakers and OC Transpo staff would face a number of challenges when it comes to designing and enforcing such a policy.

One challenge includes defining exemptions in accordance with human rights legislation, which prevents discrimination against particular groups of people based on age, gender, disability, religion and other protected categories. 

"They're going to have to require [mask usage] with exceptions, and the exceptions are going to have to be flexible," said Bryant.

Currently, the report says exceptions will be made for young children, people who have difficulty breathing, and anyone who is unable to remove a mask without assistance.

On top of that, Bryant said bus drivers and transit enforcement officers shouldn't be put in the position of judging who does or doesn't qualify for an exemption in the moment.

"Transit enforcement officers ... don't have the qualifications or the training or the legal authority to exercise that discretion," said Bryant.

Potential for conflict

The staff report doesn't say how the mask policy would be enforced, or whether punishment would be meted out to those who don't comply. 

In an interview with CBC Ottawa last week, Coun. Alan Hubley, who chairs the transit commission, said fining people for not wearing a mask wouldn't be the priority.

The union that represents OC Transpo drivers said they shouldn't be the ones responsible for enforcing the policy or defusing conflicts that may arise with riders who refuse to wear a mask.

Amanda Pfeffer/CBC

"I think it does put operators at risk of being the centre of a conflict," said Clint Crabtree, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 279.

Under current protocols, when a rider isn't following the rules, drivers call the control centre and transit enforcement officers are dispatched.

Crabtree said he recommended to city officials that if they're going to require riders to wear masks, the City of Ottawa should provide them.

The staff report says a limited number of masks will be given out during the first week of the policy, and that the city is arranging funding for a supply of masks to non-profit organizations.

In an interview on CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning on Monday, Hubley said people should have plenty of time over the next two weeks to procure cloth masks online from businesses and entrepreneurs who are selling them, or to buy disposable masks from a retailer like Canadian Tire.

"This is a measure for the safety of all our riders and for our employees, so we have to find a way to get everybody that wants to ride transit on the buses safely," Hubley said.