The debate about masks in public

By Al Ruggero

Toronto City Council approved a temporary bylaw to make face masks mandatory in enclosed, indoor public spaces as of July 7 to help reduce the spread of COVID-19.

Enough said. Or is it?

Well it’s best to fasten your seat belt because it appears the path ahead may still be bumpy.

While all of the GTA have followed Toronto’s lead with mandating masks, the Provincial government has not implemented Province-wide measures. Mask wearing has becoming a bit of a political football, as was the case when seat belts became law. Seat belt laws are the perfect analogy in the tug of war between those that oppose masks and wishing for better enforcement. I remember the fierce resistance to mandatory seat belts before those laws took effect in Ontario in January 1976. Those opposed decried the measure as a human rights abuse and infringements on the sovereignty of an individual. Over time, most came to see the public good and accept the fact that seat belts save lives. There are many similarities to that once fierce debate, but also a key difference - while seat belts are a critical factor in saving the life of the vehicle occupant (the seat belt wearer) - in the case of masks, the life saved is not that of the mask wearer. It is a move for the common good, to prevent infecting others and spreading the virus further.

We do know that the spread of the disease is exponential, meaning that stopping one infection could arrest the potential of thousands more getting the virus. Often lost in discussion between individual rights and what is right for the general public is the notion that shared civic responsibility is to the benefit and safety of all, which by the way, includes the mask wearer.

In the United States of America, the situation since July 7th has been anything but good. Much of their social discourse and divisions began with their federal government, states and local governments. Making news recently, the Governor of Georgia is suing the Mayor of Atlanta for mandating that residents in Atlanta wear masks in public places. Like Georgia, many states that re-opened without reaching US federal thresholds and CDC guidelines, are now facing exponential growth of the virus in their population.

Overall, the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States is worsening with 4.1 million infected, and over 145,000 deaths. The US is leading the world with these horrible numbers, and sadly, conditions that were once manageable appear uncontrolled. Much of the blame lies with the void in leadership from Washington, causing a breakdown of effective and systemic coordination between the state, local and federal government to marshal the appropriate resources and enact and enforce public health measures.

In 1918, the Spanish Flu, still considered the deadliest modern-day pandemic, saw the return of the virus with a vengeance after six months of gradual easing of restrictions and fewer people abiding with public health. The Spanish Flu had three waves, each new wave came about with after people and governments attempted to prematurely go back to normal.

With history pointing the way, why do we still face stubborn resistance to making masks mandatory? Governments and some of the most pre-eminent public health officials are partially to blame because of their shifting stance on the necessity of masks, insisting in February and March that it was not required for most people. Many now believe that they made these claims out of fear that supplies would be quickly exhausted leaving front-line health care workers exposed. Still most experts regret their earlier statements. In Canada, with supplies of PPE and stores well stocked with masks, public health officials, citing mounting scientific evidence, have convinced many of our government leaders on the importance of wearing masks in public to combat the pandemic along with frequent hand washing, social distancing and limits to gatherings. Think about this, in their earlier statements they said masks should be worn if you anticipate coming into close contact with others. That is the equivalent of saying you should only wear your seat belt if you believe you’re going to be in an accident.

On the whole, many observe that Canadians are more likely to comply with government recommendations and follow the advice coming from public health experts and scientists.

A recent poll of 1500 Canadians done by Abacus Data in late June found that while one in four Canadians don’t wear a mask, 62 percent would support it being made mandatory by government and only 14 percent would oppose it.

More recently, additional polling shows that support for making masks mandatory in the workplace and in public is gaining momentum.

That is good news and is in contrast with the deep divisions making mask wearing a partisan issue south of the border.

There are many facts to consider why Toronto passed a temporary bylaw mandating masks to be worn in all public spaces including shops and shopping malls. No one really likes to wear a mask. But like a lot of things with health remedies, they may taste bad and are a nuisance, but we know it is good for us and therefore, accept it. It further underlines important take-aways, that even with declining numbers of new infections, the threat posed by the COVID-19 virus is far from extinguished. Moreover, it assures the public that it is safer to shop and signals a gradual return to a modified normal. For many businesses, it is justification for the onerous precautions they implemented while often facing customer push back. The fact that it’s now the law creates a level playing field requiring all businesses who can re-open to comply.

Days before the bylaw came into effect, curiosity led me to a store clerk at a local Walmart and an enquiry as to why she and her colleague were not wearing masks. Astonished, she dismissed my question by saying that their employer made it optional, a sign for her that it was now safe to work without a mask. Recently, Walmart USA and other national retailers made it mandatory for all staff and customers nationwide to wear masks, regardless of local conditions and state rules. They must know that it is good business to be smart about health.