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Coronavirus information
Coronavirus information
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Wearing face masks, Quebec Premier François Legault, right, Quebec Health Minister Danielle McCann, left, and Horacio Arruda, Quebec Director of National Public Health, walk to a news conference on the COVID-19 pandemic, on May 13, 2020, at the legislature in Quebec City.

Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press

After months of lukewarm enthusiasm for the idea, Canada’s top doctor is now recommending that Canadians wear face masks in public – especially where physical distancing is difficult.

Dr. Theresa Tam, the Chief Public Health Officer, said Monday that, as stay-at-home orders ease and the hustle and bustle of everyday life slowly resume, masks offer an “added layer of protection” against COVID-19.

That’s the important part of the message: Covering your face is in addition to other public-health measures – handwashing, cough etiquette, physical distancing, staying home if sick – not instead of doing those things.

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Most people will take the advice in stride.

Public Health Agency issues new guidance on masks

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A poll conducted for the Association for Canadian Studies found that about one-third of Canadians say they are already wearing masks, up from about one-fifth at the start of April. Another poll, conducted by DART & Maru/Blue, also found broad support, with about two-thirds in favour of face-covering in public.

In other words, mask-wearing is becoming a social norm in pandemic times.

The proof of this is that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he would personally be wearing a mask on Parliament Hill. Politicians know a trend when they see one.

But the PM stressed that mask-wearing is a personal choice, and remains so for all Canadians.

However, what we will see in the coming days and weeks is that private enterprise is a lot more fidgety than public health. Masks are going to be mandatory, not optional, in many workplaces. Face-covering will also be the norm in many retail stores because owners worry about liability and protecting employees.

Over the past two months, Dr. Tam has shifted from saying “only sick people need to wear a mask” to “wear a mask if you want to” to “wearing a mask is a good idea.”

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Her views, she said, have changed based on evolving science, in particular the evidence that people with no obvious symptoms could infect others: “We need to flexibly change our measures as we get more information.”

Predictably, there will be those who lash out at Dr. Tam for flip-flopping and for not aggressively promoting mask-wearing sooner. But belligerent Twitter punditry – in hindsight no less – is much easier than offering reasoned guidance during an evolving pandemic, especially when decisions can have serious repercussions.

Face-covering, or lack thereof, can elicit emotional responses but we cannot allow this debate to become divisive and destructive the way it has south of the border.

In the hyperpartisan U.S., mask-wearing has become a cultural flashpoint – with the widespread perception that wussy liberals/Democrats wear masks and freedom-loving conservatives/Republicans do not, the divide facilitating the spread of disease.

In this country, we’re seeing a very different response, a rather broad consensus that mask-wearing in public is a gesture of civic-mindedness. A polite Canadian gesture.

Soon after Dr. Tam and Mr. Trudeau made their comments about face-covering, many provincial premiers and public-health officials echoed the recommendations. Even for those who are unenthusiastic about the prospect of wearing a mask in public, that’s a good thing.

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While scientific knowledge is evolving – after all, we are in the midst of an unprecedented public-health experiment on a planetary scale – scientists are still quite divided on the value of masks.

There is no question that someone who wears a mask correctly will be less likely to shed coronavirus when they cough, sneeze or talk.

However, laboratory research doesn’t necessarily translate into the real world, especially when you have studies purporting to show masks work when they involve using masks to cover cages full of hamsters.

Life is messy and nothing we do happens in isolation.

How we don, doff and clean masks is important. Mask-wearing recommendations should be followed up with campaigns on proper use.

We also don’t know the psychological impact. Does donning a mask make individuals less likely to respect physical distancing? Or does having your face covered make you more acutely aware of the risks of contracting illness?

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Despite the evolving public-health recommendations, the bottom-line advice hasn’t really changed: Wear a mask if you think it is medically or socially useful.

But, as we ease out of lockdown, recognize that masks are just one tool at our disposal, not a magical shield against COVID-19.

After once advising against wearing masks to fight COVID-19, Dr. Theresa Tam has moved to saying it's a possibility and now to recommending that Canadians use non-medical masks to contain their own particles if they can't be sure of keeping safe distances from others. The Canadian Press

Sign up for the Coronavirus Update newsletter to read the day’s essential coronavirus news, features and explainers written by Globe reporters and editors.

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