Adrienne Tanner is a Vancouver journalist who writes about civic affairs.
Bonnie Henry, B.C.’s Provincial Health Officer, suggested this week ever so gently, as is her wont, that there are certain situations when we should all wear non-medical masks to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. She mentioned small shops, hair salons and transit; places where physical distancing is impossible. With the greatest respect – this is a woman who has enabled us to weather a pandemic lightly scathed – when it comes to transit, she should have gone a step further.
Masks should be mandatory on trains and buses. Many of the world’s major cities, including Singapore, Berlin, Rome and Bangkok, have already taken this step. British Columbia should follow suit.
Scientists are rolling out studies that all show that even non-medical masks help prevent virus transmission. Medical masks are even better. While a homemade mask won’t give you much, if any, protection from contracting the disease, it will help prevent you from spreading it if you are already sick and let loose a cough or sneeze.
What we now know is that most people have no symptoms in the earliest stages of infection, the very time when they shed the most virus. This means that, for masks to be effective, everyone on a packed train must assume they could be sick and don a mask to protect others.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau this week announced his intention to wear a mask when he is on Parliament Hill. A few hours later, Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer, Theresa Tam, who initially advised Canadians outside the medical profession not to wear masks, said she now recommends wearing them when physical distancing is impossible.
While hair stylists and shopkeepers can set rules for their customers, it’s up to government lay the ground rules on transit. To acknowledge mask-wearing on transit as a best practice and fail to compel follow-through seems contradictory and defeatist.
Mask wearing to guard against disease and air pollution particulates is common in East Asian societies, says Yinxuan Huang, a research fellow in the Department of Sociology at City, University of London. But in Western countries, wearing a mask can elicit negative reactions or even be perceived as a threat. Recently, disturbing reports have surfaced of East Asian Canadians, some riding transit, being subjected to racially motivated slurs and physical attacks. Some were wearing masks when the incidents occurred. Mr. Huang sees this as a sign of cultural shock, stoked by fear and latent racism.
Perhaps Dr. Henry fears an even greater backlash if people are forced to wear masks or visors against their will. Or perhaps she is hoping most British Columbians will heed her advice and mask up on transit, just as they followed her instructions on physical distancing. Given my own shopping experiences, I’m not optimistic. Except in shops such as T&T Supermarket, where masks are mandatory, fewer than half the people I see grocery shopping are wearing them.
TransLink has launched advertising campaigns on physical distancing and travel safety that will encourage people to wear masks. But unless Dr. Henry and the provincial government pass an order that makes masks mandatory on transit, TransLink won’t unilaterally make the leap. The transportation authority points out that without the backing of an order, enforcement would be impossible.
As transit resumed near normal service levels this week, physical distancing continued to be enforced on buses, with some seats left empty, and drivers passing up passengers once the bus is full. TransLink also announced that busy train stations will be cleaned more often at peak travel periods, and some fare gates will be closed to limit the number of passengers waiting on the platforms. As the number of riders increases, and lineups begin to form, TransLink will place decals on the floor to remind people to keep their distance. But there are still no plans to make masks mandatory, which will drive some people back to their cars for trips once made on transit.
Even with our numbers of new COVID-19 cases in the single digits, I for one, will feel comfortable on the train only when everyone has a cover over their nose and mouth. A mandatory mask policy would help normalize the use of masks and restore trust and revenue to our vital transit service.
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