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People wear face masks as they walk through a shopping mall in Montreal, on July 18, 2020.Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

Anthony Piscitelli is a professor for the Conestoga College public service program. Jason Thistlethwaite is an associate professor for the University of Waterloo’s school of environment, enterprise and development.

Ontarians are looking for direction on how to act during the COVID-19 pandemic. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s daily press briefings have had hundreds of thousands of views, and updates from Premier Doug Ford have been eagerly awaited by Ontarians looking for provincial direction on how to address the coronavirus.

While the guidance has been useful, when it comes to mask policies our Ontario government has unfortunately left the decision-making entirely up to local municipalities. Many local governments have stepped up to fill this policy void, but with clear evidence of the effectiveness of masks in reducing COVID-19 already available, more concrete leadership should have come from the province.

The science on the effectiveness of masks is clear. A recent article in the Travel Medicine and Infectious Disease journal examined 21 previous studies on masks in non-health care and health care settings, finding that masks reduce the risk of respiratory virus infection by between 47 and 80 per cent.

The science suggests that if, alongside existing measures, a clear majority of Ontarians wore a mask in public spaces we would dramatically reduce infections and aid our societal recovery. The lives saved from mask-wearing outweigh any costs, and the benefits of masks do not require a choice between public health and economic growth.

A recent study out of Yale University found that for every additional mask worn by the public, US$3,000-$6,000 in public-health costs are avoided. If you add in the benefits of opening the economy, that number grows to five to six times that amount. Conservatively, the return on investment is 15,000 per cent. This far exceeds the cost-benefit of any other disaster recovery measure.

For now, the Ontario government appears to believe public awareness campaigns are sufficient to encourage people to wear a mask. Regrettably, information campaigns alone do not change behaviour.

Governments should know this by now. They have tried the same information-based approach with seat belts, smoking and drunk driving. In the case of seat belts, compliance was below 5 per cent in most provinces, but rose to over 90 per cent once it became law to wear one.

The Ontario government recognizes the benefits of mask-wearing. Indeed, their messaging encourages people to wear a mask when we’re unable to physically distance. Yet, they have not chosen to require masks to be worn in public. Instead, they are leaving it up to municipal governments to create mask policies.

Allowing for local decision-making when setting provincial policy is a worthy approach in some instances. However, in providing this flexibility, the Ontario government did not adequately consider the default option, which can have a tremendous effect.

In this case, the default option created by the Ontario government was to not require masks in public. Therefore, municipalities and local public-health officials who saw a need for a mask were forced to make the case that their region was facing a serious COVID-19 crisis, thus warranting a mandatory mask policy.

If, however, the Ontario government had created a provincewide mandatory mask policy that had allowed municipalities to opt out, this would have changed the local approach dramatically. Some municipalities may have opted out of the mask policy. In these cases, local health officials would have had to argue that an exception was warranted because their area was doing much better than the rest of the province.

Notice the subtle but significant difference: In the first instance, a case needs to be made that a serious problem exists. In the second instance, the realities of COVID-19 are immediately recognized and instead a case needs to be made for an exception.

Setting the default option to mandatory mask-wearing, with the ability to apply for exception status, would have respected local authority while sending the message that most parts of the province should require a mask. A provincial policy would have also provided clear direction on how a mask policy should be written and enforced. Instead, this was left to local governments.

Fortunately, there is still time to act. Ontario is doing well in our fight against COVID-19, with cases steadily declining. Yet we still face the looming risk of a second wave in the fall, with schools reopening and the beginning of the flu season. Now is the time to institute a provincewide law requiring masks to be worn in indoor public spaces.

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