Canada’s most heavily used transit agency is preparing to require that passengers cover their faces, part of an increasing shift toward mandatory-mask policies to curb the transmission of COVID-19.
The move by the Toronto Transit Commission would take effect July 2 and be accompanied by the distribution of one million masks. The policy must be voted on next week by the TTC board, but with the support of Toronto Mayor John Tory the result is likely a foregone conclusion.
The policy shift comes amid an evolving approach to masks in transit agencies and cities across the country. A few smaller population centres have adopted mandatory-mask policies, while New Brunswick introduced and promptly rescinded a provincewide rule. On Thursday, a group of medical professionals from across Quebec called on the province to make masks mandatory in all public indoor spaces, including on transit.
The Canadian public health advice on masks has changed since the early days of the pandemic. In March, people were told that wearing a mask could put them at greater risk, because it might be improperly fitted or lead to them touching their faces more often. More recently, masks have been identified as a way to help stop the spread of COVID-19 by those who may not know they have it.
A paper published Wednesday in Proceedings of the Royal Society A used a mathematical model to show that 100-per-cent mask use can push the effective reproduction rate of the virus below one, leading to a contraction in the number of cases.
However, Michael Bryant, the former attorney-general of Ontario who is now executive director of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, warns that overly strict mask policies could violate the law.
“Accommodations must be made for exceptions to any mandatory mask order or bylaw, pursuant to human rights equality laws,” he said in an e-mail. “Also, the enforcement of these rules should be flexible and discretionary: peace officers should inform, warn, and only ticket as a last resort. And peace officers must avoid the perception or reality of racial profiling.”
On Wednesday, the Medical Officer of Health for the city Ontario of Guelph and the surrounding Wellington County said face coverings would be mandatory to enter all indoor commercial businesses.
Nicola Mercer said the order is meant to be “educational’ and penalties should be avoided unless in extreme cases of repeat offenders, who face fines of up to $5,000 a day. There are exemptions for children under 2 and those with medical issues affected by masks. The doctor does not anticipate the order ending until there are few to no cases for at least two weeks in the region, or a vaccine becomes available.
On the island of Montreal, the small city of Côte Saint-Luc adopted a by-law on June 1 requiring face coverings inside all businesses and in municipal buildings, such as libraries. Businesses where there is non-compliance can be fined up to $100 for a first offence. “We have the highest percentage of seniors in the province, where 30 per cent of people are over 65,” Mayor Mitchell Brownstein said. “We want people to feel safe and to be safer.”
The role of masks in preventing COVID-19 transmission on transit has been identified. Seoul and Tokyo have been held up as examples of dense cities with high transit ridership – where many citizens already had a habit of wearing a mask – that have been spared major outbreaks. A recent article for the journal Science noted that no infection clusters had been traced to Japan’s commuter trains, which the author attributed to limited interaction between passengers and that “lately, they are all wearing masks.”
Several Canadian transit providers have implemented mask policies in recent weeks, though the TTC is the only large agency in the country to do so. Montreal’s STM strongly encourages passengers to wear masks, without mandating it, as does Metrolinx, the Toronto-area regional transit agency. In Vancouver, TransLink urges its passengers to cover their face.
The TTC’s mask policy is being billed as a way to help prevent the transmission of COVID-19 and also help instill public confidence that its transit vehicles are safe to ride during the pandemic.
“As more things reopen, the TTC will be moving more people,” agency chief executive Rick Leary said. “Physical distancing is simply not always going to be possible.”
He said that there would be an exemption in the policy for children under the age of 2 and for anyone with a medical condition that prevents them wearing a mask.
Not wearing a mask would be a bylaw infraction carrying a $195 fine. But both Mr. Tory and Mr. Leary said Thursday the agency would rely on education and public goodwill, rather than enforcement, to persuade passengers to wear masks.
“We won’t be issuing fines for this,” said Mr. Leary, noting that more than half of TTC riders already wear some form of mask. “I want to be clear, no one will be refused a ride on the TTC for not wearing a face covering.”
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