Masking The Issue

By: Laura Steiner

The humbling thing about COVID-19 is that it demonstrates that science evolves on a daily basis, and we need to be prepared to change our minds when given new data. Nowhere is this more true than with the study of the use of masks.

Governments at all levels, and public health officials have been consistent on this. Masks or face coverings are not required accept in situations where physical distancing is impossible. Those with medical issues around breathing, children under the age of two, and those with problems taking them off and on are exempt.

The province has refused to make face coverings mandatory, so Ontario municipalities are taking matters into their own hands. Is it because of the science? Or is it because a growing social media consensus feels like a case of “if we wear masks or face coverings, then everything will be okay.” Not exactly.

Evidence mounts that face coverings may need to be worn in even indoors in all situations. The New York Times did a piece on the weekend, where they looked at the possibility that COVID-19 is being spread in smaller droplets than first thought, and the World Health Organization (W.H.O) has been slow to adapt.

However, there is little evidence to support wearing a mask protects anyone but the wearer. There’s also little proof that not wearing a mask automatically means you’re a carrier. Public policy decisions on this come from an “err on the side of caution,” mentality.

Enforcement and exemption should be taken into account. Are authorities ready, and willing fine people for not wearing them? There’s been a number of complaints about people breaking provincial orders, but not a lot about enforcement.

Should people with health reasons be exempt? If so, what does that exemption look like? A note from a family doctor stating the reason why? a prescription for medication? A negative COVID-19 test? There could be issues of privacy, and fraud.

What about the communications component? Is there enough being done to promote the other measures that prevent the spread such as staying home, and proper hygiene? Are we doing enough to foster an understanding that just because you aren’t wearing a face covering, it doesn’t mean you’re not doing those other things.

A mandatory bylaw on wearing masks indoors could end up being good policy. It also might give people a false sense of security. The challenge for political leadership is to balance the two.