Annette Elliott says she was playing Scrabble 2½ weeks ago when a Mountie showed up on her doorstep in Nanaimo, B.C., without a mask and stood less than half a metre away as he began questioning her 78-year-old husband about a minor parking-lot collision.
She said she was angry enough at the RCMP officer’s lack of adherence to common pandemic protocol that she phoned the local detachment to complain. Staff there told Ms. Elliott that it is up to each officer’s discretion when to use a mask and then promised to relay her complaint to leadership, which hasn’t brought a response.
“It doesn’t seem to matter that he’s breaking all the rules,” she said late last week. “We’re in a high-risk group and we know nothing about this man and he’s standing completely inappropriately, given [Provincial Health Officer] Bonnie Henry’s directives, within a foot of my husband giving him a piece of his mind about how he’d left the scene of an accident.”
Nanaimo RCMP spokesperson Constable Gary O’Brien would not comment on the alleged incident, but he told The Globe and Mail that his detachment strongly encourages its officers to wear masks on duty. However, they are not mandatory.
First responders across British Columbia follow differing rules when it comes to masks. Paramedics must mask up any time they respond to someone in distress and Vancouver firefighters are required to follow suit if they have any chance of interacting with the public.
But the RCMP’s 6,800 officers in the province are all allowed to make their own decisions as to whether they need to don a mask, mostly when they can’t maintain physical distancing from a member of the public, according to the agency’s spokespeople.
The Vancouver Police Department’s mask policy is roughly the same as the Mounties' rule.
Most first responders must be making the right choices to control the spread of COVID-19, according to Dr. Henry, given the very low number of positive cases among their ranks. Last week, she said she was only aware of one paramedic who has tested positive and some firefighters who have contracted the virus while helping suppress wildfires in California.
“It’s a negligible amount and I’m not aware of any firefighters or police who have been infected in the course of their duties,” Dr. Henry said.
RCMP spokesperson Staff-Sergeant Janelle Shoihet says only two officers in the province have been infected with the coronavirus while on duty, and both cases stem from the same incident. Another 27 RCMP employees across B.C. have tested positive, she said, with 21 now back at work after recuperating at home in isolation.
“While the origin of many of the cases cannot conclusively be determined given the 14-day incubation period, early on we had a number of cases that could comfortably be linked to community exposures, travel and family contacts,” she wrote in an e-mailed statement.
WorkSafeBC, the agency in charge of worker safety, has had 16 COVID-19 claims made by people working in law enforcement. So far, seven police officers have been successful, which means they proved they became infected while working a job that put them at a significantly higher risk of being exposed to the virus, according to spokesperson Alexandra Skinner.
Ms. Elliott, the Nanaimo resident, said she and her husband have been symptom-free since the visit from the officer, which resulted in a ticket for leaving the scene of an accident. But the incident has eroded her trust in the authorities.
“We’re in a situation right now where people should respect the people that are telling us what to do,” she said.
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