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Niagara West MPP Sam Oosterhoff, seen here at the Ontario Science Centre in Toronto on March 15, 2018, has apologized for not wearing a mask after posting a group picture on social media on the weekend that was later deleted.Chris Young/The Canadian Press

A Progressive Conservative MPP who serves as an aide to Ontario’s Education Minister is facing increasing calls to step down from the portfolio after he failed to wear a mask or practise physical distancing at a large gathering.

Niagara West MPP Sam Oosterhoff, parliamentary assistant to Education Minister Stephen Lecce, has apologized for not wearing a mask after posting a group picture on social media on the weekend that was later deleted. He characterized the incident as a mistake while posing for a “quick pic,” although the restaurant where the gathering was held later said the group wasn’t following the rules.

Mr. Oosterhoff’s role as one of the government’s key voices on education has become the target of stakeholders, who say he failed to set an example for the province’s students.

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Sam Hammond, president of the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario, called on the government to relieve Mr. Oosterhoff from his position as parliamentary assistant. Mr. Hammond said it was “outrageous” that Mr. Oosterhoff, who helps sets safety guidelines for schools, had not followed his own government’s public health directions. The government requires students in Grades 4 to 12 to wear masks in schools, including in hallways and during classes. Many school boards have mandated that younger children wear them as well.

“This was more than a mistake; it is a serious breach of trust for the students, parents and educators he serves,” Mr. Hammond said. “Masking rules apply to everyone and it is hypocritical for the Ford government to excuse his behaviour.”

Mr. Oosterhoff this week referred to rules for staffed facilities such as banquet halls and restaurants, which allow up to 50 people to gather in most regions, but said he should have worn a mask “given the proximity of everyone,” when he posed for pictures with around 40 people.

However, the Niagara Falls restaurant where the gathering was held – in a private room – said the group was reminded “several times” they needed to wear masks when not seated at their tables.

“Unfortunately they chose not to follow posted rules about wearing masks and distancing. We can remind guests but we cannot strong-arm them into following rules,” said the Facebook post from Betty’s Restaurant late Monday night.

Reached by the Globe on Tuesday, the restaurant’s owner, Joe Miszk – whose family has owned the business for 53 years - said he posted the comment on Facebook because he had been receiving negative comments about the incident and wanted to share that staff were following proper protocols. He said he spoke briefly with Mr. Oosterhoff, who apologized.

Premier Doug Ford, who in the past has had harsh words for anti-mask protesters and those who flout public health rules, defended Mr. Oosterhoff for a second time on Tuesday, saying the MPP made a mistake.

“He apologized, he said it’s not going to happen again. And I accept that. … He’s a great MPP,” Mr. Ford said, adding that everyone should wear a face covering indoors.

Harvey Bischof, president of the Ontario Secondary Teachers' Federation, said that Mr. Oosterhoff has set “such a bad example that removing himself at least for some period of time would reflect the seriousness of his actions.”

Mr. Bischof said that the Premier needed to be more forceful in his response, and characterizing Mr. Oosterhoff’s action as a mistake further confuses the public on following public health guidance.

“Had this just been some citizen, I’m sure the Premier would have been calling him a yahoo … but when it was one of his own caucus members, the response was, I think, unfortunately muted,” Mr. Bischof said.

Anthony Dale, president and chief executive officer of the Ontario Hospital Association, also called for Mr. Oosterhoff to be removed from his parliamentary assistant role.

Federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu has also come under fire this week after a photo circulated online in which she is seated in a Toronto airport lounge without wearing her mask.

Ms. Hajdu said she follows public health rules and only removes her mask to eat or drink. There’s no food or drink apparent in the image, although there is an open paper bag just visible on Ms. Hajdu’s side, away from the camera.

With a report from The Canadian Press

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