Quebec will be officially lifting its indoor mask mandate on May 14, the province's interim director of public health announced Wednesday.
Dr. Luc Boileau said that hospitalizations and staff absences in the health-care system were on the decline, which informed his recommendation. The government of Quebec then accepted his suggestion to end the mandate.
"The whole portrait is getting better," he said.
However, he said masks will still be required in health-care settings, where vulnerable populations could potentially be exposed, and public transit, because it's more difficult to maintain a minimal distance between passengers.
On the other hand, elementary and high schools will be allowed to drop the masks. Students will no longer be required to wear a mask for any of their activities, be it when they are in the classroom, in cafeterias or walking in hallways. The same applies to teaching staff.
Wearing a mask will also be optional in school transportation, given that students will have spent the entire day together, Boileau said.
"It wouldn't be logical to make masking mandatory [in school buses]," he said.
Boileau specified that masks were still recommended in certain situations, including when you have any symptoms, saying "you don't need to be sure that it's COVID" to wear a mask and be prudent.
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The province's mandatory mask mandate has been in place since July 2020, for a total of 21 consecutive months, and will be the last province to require masks in most indoor spaces.
Prince Edward Island, the only other province still with a mandate in place, lifts its order on Friday, May 6.
Experts urge caution on de-masking
However, some feel the province should be taking its time and not moving to lift the mask mandate so soon.
Dr. Matthew Oughton, an infectious disease specialist at Montreal's Jewish General Hospital, said masks don't only work to counter COVID-19, but also influenza, which is circulating widely in the province.
The combination of both is putting additional pressure on the province's hospitals, he said.
"[Influenza] is really showing up and facing a health-care system that is, already has been and continues to be, under significant strain," he told CBC Montreal's Daybreak.
"Why don't we give our hospitals every benefit we can while we're still trying to sort of regain some equilibrium?"
Oughton suggested the government maintain the mandate on a week-by-week basis.
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But Simon Bacon, a professor in behavioural medicine at Concordia University, said many are frustrated about the mask mandate specifically, in part because they don't understand why it's still mandatory.
"People don't really have a sense of why they should be doing this," he said. "Obviously we know that the pandemic is out there, but on the one hand the government is saying we're going to keep these measures in certain places. And on the other hand, they're sort of getting rid of everything."
"There's this contradiction at a global level," he said.
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Bacon said there is likely to be some "tension" between those who choose to continue wearing masks and those who don't but suggested peer pressure on a community level will likely set the norm.
For example, in schools, he said "the social norm of a particular classroom" appears to shape whether or not children keep their masks on or off.
"What invariably will happen is a lot of people will sort of start defaulting to what's going on around them," he said.