Mask mandates are done in Ontario as of March 21. The new broke yesterday, and with all things COVID-19 there was an immediate reaction that was far from universal. While some people are looking forward with relief and optimism that the worst is over, there are still a lot of people raising the red flag that the province could be in danger in the short-term without masking mandates. Here’s some of the reaction from politicians, educators, and health workers.
Official opposition leader Andrea Horwath used her time in Question Period on Wednesday to interrogate the government’s decision to remove mandates on March 21. “You don’t throw in the towel in the last round,” she said in a statement on social media. “Masking is a vital public health measure, especially in schools where little ones haven’t received all three shots, like most adults have. We need to follow the science and keep masking in place for just a few more weeks.”
On Wednesday, director of the Ontario COVID-19 science table Dr. Peter Juni told CTV News that “I would like to follow the data, I can’t right now. It’s too early to already see the impact of the last reopening step which happened first of March.
“So I would have preferred — but that’s how I’m conditioned as a scientist — to accumulate about 10 days more of data, and then see, do we remain stable after the last reopening step,” Juni added. “If yes, let’s do the next one, if no, let’s wait for a moment.”
Guelph MPP and Green Party leader Mike Schreiner was also skeptical given the fact that the science table’s advice was apparently not taken into account with the decision, and added that there are some very important reasons why the Government of Ontario should wait before removing mask mandates.
“Let’s remember that 100% of kids under 5 and 70 per cent of kids age 5 – 11 are still unvaccinated, and the Ford government is putting immunocompromised Ontarians, people with disabilities and children in harm’s way,” Schreiner said. “Ontarians have been through so much in the last two years and we’re all frustrated and waiting for the end of this pandemic. Masks, like vaccines, are a key layer of protection that help us fully reopen the province and stay open.”
Liberal leader Steven Del Duca got an early jump on the criticism by putting out a statement on Wednesday morning responding to the then-rumoured repeal of the mask mandate, and comparing it to Premier Doug Ford’s early actions at the start of the pandemic.
“Almost two years ago to the day, on the eve of March Break, our borders closing and a province-wide lockdown, Doug Ford told families: ‘go away, have a good time, enjoy yourself.’ However well-meaning, it was reckless advice that likely contributed to the early spread of COVID-19 in Ontario,” Del Duca said. “I simply do not accept the argument that our kids’ schools are not higher-risk areas and essential, and the experts agree. We must wait a couple more weeks to make sure our kids will be safe.”
It seems that some school teachers agree with Del Duca noting that there is still no way of tracking the spread of COVID-19 in teachers and students due to a lack of robust testing.
“Masking has been among the most effective ways to reduce the spread of COVID in schools. ‘We’ll just need to live with COVID’ isn’t exactly a health and safety strategy that inspires confidence in this government,” said the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation in a statement. “A more cautious and evidence-based approach is needed if we are to avoid another COVID wave and a return to health restrictions.”
“Lifting the mask mandate too soon may result in further disruption to in-person learning and negative impacts on the health and safety of ETFO members, students, and their families. Ontarians deserve stability and safety, not more chaos,” said Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) president Karen Brown. “Throughout the pandemic, Ontarians have relied on public health officials to lead with a science- and evidence-based approach. Unfortunately, it appears that a fast-approaching June election is influencing politicians’ decisions to lift COVID-19 safety measures.”
“We oppose the government’s plan to lift the mask mandate in schools as of March 21,” said the Ontario Principals’ Council in a statement. “This decision should be revisited when we are in a better position to monitor actual case counts, assess the aftermath of the other pandemic-related restrictions that are set to be eased, gauge ongoing absence rates in schools and further consult with the scientific and medical communities.”
Speaking of medical communities, they also have a fair amount of skepticism about the removal of mask mandates in a little over a week. “It’s premature and runs the risk of undoing the gains made to contain the spread of COVID-19,” said Dr. Doris Grinspun, CEO of the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario (RNAO).
“The province has relinquished its responsibility to protect people from this virus. That’s why we urge all Ontarians to continue wearing masks,” added RNAO president Morgan Hoffarth. “All these public health measures were designed to save lives, protect the most vulnerable and take a responsible approach to virus containment. Without them, we could face a fifth wave of the virus. The government is leaving Ontarians to assess their own risk as Dr. Moore himself said. That suggests the province has lost interest in containing COVID-19 and has given up the fight.”
The Children’s Health Coalition, which includes Sick Kids Hospital and other health organizations geared to children, was a little softer in their language. They’re also encouraging everyone to stay masked in schools since keeping schools is open is the the “most important goal” and since most COVID cases identified in schools tend to begin outside of school.
“With the removal of the indoor mask mandate today, for now, we encourage everyone to continue masking in schools, if they are able, to reduce absenteeism and support sustained in-person learning as a precautionary and phased approach as we come out of the Omicron wave,” the statement read. “We are pleased that the Chief Medical Officer of Health is continuing to encourage masking as well and that the government is making rapid tests broadly available. We may have to, and would encourage, a return to universal masking when there is a surge in cases that put children and their families at risk.”
Anthony Dale, president and CEO of the Ontario Hospital Association, reaffirmed that the mask mandates will continue in the province’s hospitals. “Hospitals have a duty to do everything they can to keep patients safe and the OHA will continue to support and serve its members during this historic time,” he said.
“The decision to lift masking requirements later this month for the public is a judgment call. Given the risks and uncertainties from COVID-19, particularly for vulnerable populations such as the unvaccinated and immunocompromised, responsibility for any consequences from this decision rests with the Government of Ontario,” Dale added. “Ontarians can expect that masking will be required within hospital settings for some time as a patient safety measure.”
In terms of business interests in Ontario, the Retail Council of Canada says it did a survey of its members and found that retailers intend to support staff who continue to wear a mask post-March 21, they will continue to use health and safety tools like plexiglass and hand sanitizer, and that they will keep up messaging that customer can continue to wear their mask in-store.
“After more than two years of responding to rapidly changing measures across the country, retailers are very experienced at implementing and adapting their stores to best address their unique operational requirements and to keep customers and employees safe,” said an RCC statement. “At the end of the day, retailers are all about offering the best customer experience and our members are eager to see customers and staff interact as they once did.”