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It is increasingly indefensible, each day that goes by, that jurisdictions in Canada kick the can down the road on mandatory mask policies. After walking a tortuously convoluted path that first saw public health officials dismiss the usefulness of masks, then yield to their potential application, and then finally recommend their use “where physical distancing is difficult to maintain,” most regions have now settled into something of a status quo where authorities appear to simply hope that Canadians have received and will heed the message.

No, not the old message – the new message. The third or fourth directive, I think. That is: Wear a mask if you can, but no, it’s not required … unless you’re on certain forms of transit or travelling within select regions … and only if you think you won’t be able to physically distance, which you should try to figure out ahead of time. Anyway, wearing a mask is now the recommendation. Check back in July, when it could become a “strong” recommendation.

Modelling indicates that the spread of COVID-19 could be significantly reduced if at least 70 per cent to 80 per cent of the population started wearing masks in public spaces. Of course, universal masking is not a panacea, but one recent study of 194 countries found that early adoption of masks was correlated with considerably lower death rates and less severe outbreaks of COVID-19. “The use of masks in public is an important and readily modifiable public health measure,” the authors wrote.

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Yet the use of masks as only a “recommended” measure has not seen the uptake needed to reach the threshold to meaningfully curb the spread of disease. Only about 50 per cent of respondents to a recent Leger poll reported wearing a mask to go grocery shopping. Without a directive on mandatory masking, it is unclear how or when public health officials think that the other 50 per cent will suddenly find the impetus to do so.

Only a few municipalities in Canada – Côte Saint-Luc in Quebec, and Windsor-Essex and Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph in Ontario – have so far mandated masks in public spaces, though an increasing number of U.S. states, including Washington, Michigan and Nevada, have now issued some kind of face-covering order. The rest of Canada could very well get there eventually – belatedly – as has been this country’s recent practice in rolling out pandemic-control measures. But surely public-health officers have recognized that foot-dragging only serves the interest of the virus; if something is worth doing eventually, it’s worth doing now, especially as provinces and cities continue on their paths to reopening.

Certainly, there will be problems with implementation and enforcement. According to the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, tickets for pandemic-related bylaw infractions over the past few months have disproportionately been issued to people of Black, Indigenous or other racialized communities. That should make clear that methods of enforcement, including bylaw officer training, should be immediately reviewed to ensure more equitable application. But that doesn’t make the idea of mandatory-mask policies inherently illegitimate. If the idea is worthy but the enforcement questionable, we shouldn’t toss the idea, but rather, focus on how to remedy problems with enforcement.

Even then, there will still be problems. People who cannot wear masks for medical reasons (asthma, for example) will have to constantly explain their conditions to bylaw officers, staff at grocery stores and other businesses, and well-meaning bystanders. It’s unquestionably unfair, but their discomfort should not outweigh the larger public benefit to an order mandating widespread mask use. And while enforcement will probably still be clumsy and sporadic, the message behind a universal masking directive is arguably just as important as its actual implementation. A mandatory mask policy cuts through the flip-flops, ambiguities and patchwork policies of the past. The message is unequivocal and clear: Wear a mask in public.

No doubt some Canadians will resist what they perceive to be an egregious affront to their individual freedoms. Yet over the past few months, we’ve given up our schools, our workplaces, our leisure activities, public gatherings and family celebrations. We’ve shut down our economy and, for a while, forfeited the freedom to even sit on a park bench. An order that people put a piece of cloth over their faces – which can be achieved with a cut-up T-shirt and an elastic band – is perhaps the most cost-effective and least intrusive measure, relative to potential benefit, in mitigating the spread of COVID-19. It just feels more intrusive because we’re putting something on our bodies.

Yet of everything we’ve given up over the past few months, this directive would be among the least disruptive. And if it helps us get back those other, far more important freedoms, it’s worth the imposition. Canada, like the rest of the world, seems to be headed in that direction anyway. So what, exactly, are we waiting for?

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