#onpoli newsletter: The politics of masks

Some think mask-wearing should be required by law. But others say the issue is more complicated
By Steve Paikin and John Michael McGrath - Published on Jun 23, 2020
Premier Doug Ford at the opening of a new Daily Bread Food Bank in Toronto. (Frank Gunn/CP)

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Hello, #onpoli people: 

Should government leaders make masks mandatory? Podcast hosts Steve Paikin and John Michael McGrath discuss Ontario's reopening.

Not your typical summer

An empty patio table and chairs
It might be a quieter summer than usual, even with patios reopening. (iStock/sassy1902)

John Michael McGrath: Is it possible to have a summer of our discontent? It feels like 2020 is going to answer that question. Things are starting to reopen in Ontario, including Toronto and Peel Region later this week, but nobody’s under the illusion that we’re returning to normal anytime soon. (Right?)

The province is still recording hundreds of new cases every day, albeit at much lower levels than the pandemic’s April peak. The war to protect long-term care homes is slowly being won, but now we’ve got huge outbreaks in greenhouses and other farms in the province’s southwest. The fatality count is, mercifully, not at the same level as the long-term care homes, but already three workers have died and many more are sick. Premier Doug Ford says he hopes this week’s extension of the state of emergency will be the last, but nobody expects all of the public health rules we’ve been living with to suddenly vanish. I don’t really know what comes next, only that while some people might still get time off between Canada Day and Labour Day, I’m not sure it will qualify as a vacation, exactly.

Steve Paikin: Yes, I hear you on that vacation thing. It’s certainly not going to be your typical summer vacation of past years.  Even with the warmer weather, which theoretically might make transmission of COVID-19 more difficult, it’s still incumbent upon us to follow the protocols of hand-washing, physical distancing, and wearing masks where appropriate. Speaking of which, I’m wondering how much longer the province will go without mandating mask-wearing in indoor businesses. I know our governments would prefer to leave this to the common sense of Canadians rather than pass a law.

We’ve seen the Toronto Transit Commission come out and demand that riders (with some exceptions) wear masks. No, they’re not going to forbid you from traveling on the system if you’re unmasked, but I can certainly see this becoming a flashpoint among citizens, who will increasingly give dirty looks to transit users, shoppers, or mall visitors who decline to cover up. Science tells us mask-wearing helps, and if increasing numbers of people are going to start taking their cues on this from the president of the United States, it’s going to cause trouble.

The law on masks

John Michael: Oh boy, the mask issue is super frustrating. There seems to be a new scientific article every week (here’s a recent one) showing that mask rules have positive effects, and so far I’ve seen none that show masks causing the harm that some public health officials have predicted – for example, that people would use masks as an excuse to practise physical distancing less. Meanwhile, in Ontario, you’ve got local public health officers, municipal mayors and councillors, the provincial chief medical officer, cabinet, and the legislature itself who could all make a clear rule about this: but none of them are! And even though we’re reopening things progressively, the dangers haven’t disappeared. The premier has been reasonably direct about the importance of mask use, but advice from the government isn’t the same thing as a rule that can be enforced. On the flip side, the enforcement of things like park closures around the province haven’t exactly been handled fairly for all Ontarians and I’m honestly a little uneasy about how a masking rule would be enforced against marginalized people if we did have one. Like I say, frustrating.

Steve: I guess the best thing we can say about this is that our public officials, in the main, have set a good example on mask wearing. Premier Ford wore his in public when he was schlepping PPE into the back of his pickup truck, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is frequently seen in public with his mask on. Compare that to the American president who refuses to follow his own administration’s policy on mask wearing. I’m not sure what your experience is like on this, JMM, but I find outdoors in midtown Toronto, some people wear them and some don’t — which is fine. It’s hard to catch COVID-19 outdoors in the summer. Indoors, I see lots of people wearing them in corner stores or supermarkets. So even if the message isn’t completely consistent, people seem to be getting the gist of where they’re necessary and where they’re not.

John Michael: My experience indoors has been pretty gratifying, for the handful of places I go when I’m not home (almost entirely groceries): lots of folks are wearing masks or face shields. Not for the first time in this pandemic, the folks in the pews are ahead of the folks at the pulpit. But, to mangle the religious metaphor a bit, it’s weird that we don’t have a canonical answer on this yet.

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