Premier Francois Legault softens rules for outdoor mask use following criticism

·3 min read

MONTREAL — Quebec Premier Francois Legault softened some rules surrounding outdoor mask wearing on Wednesday, after opposition parties expressed concern about his government's confused messaging.

On Tuesday, Legault reminded Quebecers about a new rule stating that any time two or more people from different households gather outside in red or orange pandemic-alert zones, they have to wear masks — except if they are sitting down at least two metres apart or doing water sports.

The rule, he said, even applied to couples walking down the street or to people playing outdoor sports.

A day later, Legault appeared to backtrack.

In a message on his Facebook page, he said he had asked that the order be clarified and apply only in situations when it may be difficult to respect a two-metre distance.

"In a situation where you are sure to always stay more than two meters away, such as tennis or golf, or sitting in a park, it is not necessary to wear the mask," he wrote on his page.

Legault said the mask rule would no longer apply to someone walking with a family member who is part of their bubble or to friends or romantic couples going for a walk.

The change came after the province's health director admitted on Tuesday that the rules could appear "inconsistent" for couples who don't live together and who are required to wear masks while walking outside but not when they are together indoors.

In his message, Legault urged Quebecers to nonetheless use their common sense and take as many precautions as possible given the contagious nature of the COVID-19 variants that are circulating in the province.

"Why take a chance to contaminate a friend or a loved one or to contaminate yourself?" he wrote.

"If you have the least doubt, wear a mask."

Members of the Opposition Liberals and Quebec solidaire blasted the government for not properly explaining the new measure to the public.

Quebec solidaire spokesperson Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois said Wednesday in Quebec City that the outdoor mask rules were hard to follow and they hadn't been shown to be necessary.

Liberal Leader Dominique Anglade noted that the government had announced the original outdoor mask rule in a press release last week instead of mentioning it during the news conference that had taken place minutes prior.

"From one day to the next, people are told they have to wear masks, and it's done by press release," she said.

The government's public health institute recommended the mask rule as a precaution, despite a lack of data proving outdoor transmission is a problem.

Public health director Horacio Arruda acknowledged on Tuesday that the province doesn't have data confirming that transmission is happening outdoors but said experts believe there's a risk given the contagious nature of new COVID-19 variants.

"Given the very high transmissibility of the variants, given the fact that outside, less than two meters there are still particles … this recommendation was adopted by our experts, by consensus," he said.

In an email sent Wednesday morning, the Health Department said its contact tracing process seeks to identify in what setting an outbreak occurred but not whether it happened indoors or outdoors.

Doing a more detailed breakdown is "not a priority at this time," the email said.

The mask-wearing rules, it added, were brought in out of concern that people were forgetting to maintain a two-metre distance during outdoor gatherings, which have become more popular in recent weeks given the warm weather.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 14, 2021.

— With files from Caroline Plante.

Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press