When Ontario students return from March Break they won’t be mandated to wear masks in the classroom anymore, and neither will anyone else. In an anticipated announcement from Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore, the provincial mask mandate will be lifted on March 21 with some limited exceptions. Keeping each other safe from COVID-19, Moore said, is now in our own hands.
“With the peak of Omicron behind us, Ontario has been able to cautiously and gradually move through its re-opening milestones. We are now learning to live with, and manage, COVID-19 for the long term,” Moore said from the Queen’s Park media studio on Wednesday. “This necessitates a shift to a more balanced response to the pandemic, and changes are being made with respect to the provincial pandemic response to reflect a longer term approach.”
In brief, that means no more mask mandates stating on March 21 with the exception of public transit, health care settings, long-term care homes and congregate care settings.
“A process is now underway to gradually revoke all directives and instructions by the end of April, with a focus on moving away from emergency measures to ongoing operations, and moving away from reliance on provincial emergency direction through mandatory requirements,” Moore added.
Although this is technically a revoking of one of the mandates, Moore said numerous times during the media briefing that he hopes people will continue to choose a mask, especially for people who have health issues like immune deficiencies that might make them especially vulnerable to COVID-19 and its side effects.
“It is a choice now and that’s the major change on [March] 21, you can do your individual risk assessment but it’s not a mandate,” Moore said. “The risk is is continuing to diminish, but for some individuals that may be at risk for admission to hospital and they will have a negative impact from COVID 19. That’s their decision and choice to make, and that’s where we move from a mandate to choice.”
Moore said that people need to be “kind, considerate and respectful” to the people that choose to continue to wear a mask after March 21. Reporters noted that it sounds like Moore is expecting there to be trouble between people who remain masked and those that choose not to, and he might have good reason.
“I think we’ve been watching the news internationally and from the United States where there’s an intolerance in some communities, and I would like us to be tolerant of people’s individual choices, and to realize we’re not finished with this pandemic,” Moore explained. “We have to acknowledge that some people will be quite concerned with the removal of the mask mandate, and that we should give them the option of wearing a mask with confidence that they will be treated with appropriate kindness and consideration.”
Moore was asked what he will do on March 21. Will he be going into indoor spaces mask-less, or will he be keeping his mask on?
“In outdoor settings, I absolutely won’t be wearing my masking. I will do a risk assessment for high-risk indoor setting, so if I go to the Eaton Centre, I wear my mask. If I’m on the subway, it will be mandated on a public bus or streetcar, and I will continue to wear my mask in those environments,” Moore explained. “I will do my individual risk assessment, and if I’m going into the type of environment where you’re not going to be distancing from other people who aren’t wearing masks at an individual level, I’ll continue to wear a mask.”
The Local Picture
Shortly after Moore’s announcement, our own local Medical Officer of Health Dr. Nicola Mercer released a statement saying that she will be removing her own public health order on masking on March 21, although Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Public Health will continue to monitor the situation and many adjustments as required.
“While many of us are ready to take this next step, many are not,” Mercer said. “For families with children under five, members of our community with underlying health conditions and many who are just not ready to get ‘back to normal’, your concerns are very valid. Please continue to follow the public health measures that support your and your families’ needs.”
Mercer’s Section 22 order for mandatory masking in public places was one of the first of its kind to be initiated in Canada during the first wave of the pandemic on June 12, 2020. The order has been amended a couple of times since then, but it has more or less remained intact for much of the last two years. Mercer, in her statement, also reiterated that people need to be allowed to decide their comfort level going forward.
“While we continue to move forward, there is no end date for the pandemic. We can each move forward only as quickly as our individual situations dictate,” she said. “As a community, we have done so much together during this pandemic. We must continue to treat each other with empathy and kindness.”
The Upper Grand District School Board released a statement that they will be consulting local and provincial public health authorities about their next move noting that the board’s own resolution requiring masks in schools is still in place.