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People travelling by plane must have masks that cover their nose and mouth, a requirement intended to reduce the spread of COVID-19, the federal government says.

The rule, effective on April 20, requires passengers wear a cloth or non-surgical mask at airport screening points and other places where they cannot keep two metres apart from others, and when told to do so by airline employees or public health officials, transport Canada said on Friday.

“Aviation passengers on all flights departing or arriving at Canadian airports will also be required to demonstrate they have the necessary non-medical mask or face covering during the boarding process otherwise they will not be allowed to continue on their journey,” the government said.

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Additionally, people travelling by boat, ferry or bus are encouraged to cover their faces with a mask “where possible,” and could be told to do so by the person in charge.

“Canadians should continue to follow public health advice and stay at home if possible,” said Marc Garneau, Transport Minister, in a statement. “However, if you need to travel, wearing a face covering is an additional measure you can take to protect others around you, especially in situations where physical distancing guidelines cannot be maintained.”

Canada’s guidance on face coverings to slow the deadly virus has veered as the outbreak spread rapidly. The government initially said face masks were unnecessary for healthy people – and a drain on the supplies needed for health care workers. This message changed recently, as Canadians were told to wear non-medical face coverings in grocery stores and other places where social distancing is not possible.

There have been dozens of commercial airlines flights to and from Canada bearing people suffering from COVID-19. The most recent case reported by the government was a Cathay Pacific flight to Hong Kong from Vancouver on April 7. Passengers in all rows were advised they had been exposed to a confirmed case of the virus.

More than 1,000 Canadian flight attendants have been quarantined for 14 days after working flights with infections on board, according to Canadian Union of Public Employees, which represents flight attendants.

The highly contagious virus has infected a total of 120 pilots, flight attendants and other airline employees as of April 13, according to Air Canada, Air Transat and WestJet Airlines. The airlines said some of these illnesses could have been the result of community spread, not work. They reported no deaths.

Flight attendants and pilots complain the airlines and government are not doing enough to protect them, even though they have been declared an essential service. The workers’ demands include more separation from passengers at check-ins, better protective gear during flights and improved screening of passengers.

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