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Although no longer required outside, a sign advises visitors to wear masks at the Denver Zoo, in Denver, Colo., on May 13, 2021.David Zalubowski/The Associated Press

Imagine this scenario: it’s June, and across the country the number of cases of COVID-19 in Canada continues to drop as more and more people get vaccinated against the disease, with millions receiving their second jab.

One thing would remain the same as it is now, however: nearly everywhere people go, they are required to wear masks.

This would not escape the notice of Canadians, especially since, south of the border, those who have been fully vaccinated have resumed something akin to life as normal. Many stopped wearing masks mid-May, and now can go pretty much anywhere they want without a burdensome face covering. And no doubt this radically different reality between the two countries would not go down well among those living north of the 49th.

This scenario is not far-fetched: the very situation is unfolding as we speak. Anthony Fauci, the top infectious disease expert in the U.S., proclaimed last week – to the shock of many – that it’s safe for fully vaccinated Americans to eschew physical distancing and go almost anywhere, indoors and outdoors, without wearing a mask.

What stunned many is that the directive seemed to come out of nowhere. Many were bewildered that U.S. President Joe Biden would have allowed such a momentous development to be announced by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and not the White House itself. Dr. Fauci has also steered a pretty cautious course when it comes to public health measures related to the pandemic, and this policy decision seems to veer in the complete opposite direction – especially given that, as of Monday, less than 40 per cent of the country was fully vaccinated. Indeed, Canada is expected to surpass the U.S. in terms of percentage of the population with their first shot sometime this week, a gap that should only widen.

It wasn’t that long ago Dr. Fauci (and his counterparts around the world) talked about the need for reaching herd immunity before we could live in a postpandemic world; that requires 70 to 80 per cent of the population being vaccinated. This remains the view of most of Canada’s top infectious disease specialists, including our Chief Public Health Officer, Theresa Tam.

But Dr. Fauci’s announcement could have widespread consequences.

Right now, everyone is trying to figure out what this new directive means in practical terms. The biggest and most obvious question: how is anyone to know whether a person without a mask on is actually fully vaccinated? Mr. Biden has said he is not in favour of anything that resembles a vaccine passport or vaccine verification, and that’s going to be an issue.

Given the significant and enduring resistance to mask-wearing policies in nearly every U.S. state, Dr. Fauci’s pronouncement screams “all clear.” Once people realize they can go maskless with no questions asked – well, then, it’s over. And as many have flagged in recent days, case numbers could begin to spike again as people take advantage of public health guidance that is based on the honour system.

But what if the incidence of the disease doesn’t go up? Dr. Fauci has said that the underlying reason for the CDC’s position is the evolution of the science around COVID-19. Even though some people who have been fully vaccinated have still become infected, he said, almost all of them are asymptomatic and the level of virus in them is so low it makes it very unlikely (although not impossible) that they will transmit it to someone else.

If the mask decision spurs more people to get fully vaccinated, he added, then that would be a happy bonus.

But back to Canada.

If the CDC’s roll of the dice – as some see it – works, producing no noticeable spike in the disease, and the United States starts to look and sound a lot like the United States of 2019 and earlier, then Dr. Tam, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and provincial leaders across the country are going to be facing some tough questions.

Chief among them: why aren’t we adopting the same policy?

It’s going to be evident fairly soon whether the CDC’s plan is working, or whether it is an ill-conceived gambit that leads to rising case numbers and confrontations between workers in establishments that still require masks and Americans waving Dr. Fauci’s directive in their faces, demanding to be allowed in.

The next few weeks should be fascinating. And there will not be a more interested observer than Canada.

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