06/08/2020 18:04 EDT | Updated 06/09/2020 21:40 EDT

Alberta Is Giving Away Masks At Drive-Thrus. Here’s What You Need To Know

Each Albertan is allotted four single-use masks.

When the Alberta government announced its plan to distribute disposable face masks through fast food drive-thrus, many Canadians met the news with a side-eye and coy “would you like fries with that?”

But now the program’s here, and Albertans can pick up their free pack of four single-use disposable masks — along with their fast food staples — from McDonalds, Tim Horton’s and A&W drive-thru locations across the province as part of ongoing efforts to fight COVID-19.

“We’re proud to be the first province in Canada to support residents with free masks for use in situations where physical distancing may not be possible,” Health Minister Tyler Shandro said in a statement. “Thank you to our restaurant partners, franchise owners and staff members, who are volunteering their time and effort to distribute these masks.” 

Alberta Health Minister Tyler Shandro poses with a sign outside of an Alberta McDonald's location.

The program launched Monday, just days after the World Health Organization formally endorsed mask-wearing as a way to prevent the spread of COVID-19. 

WHO director-general Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus encouraged people to  wear masks where there is widespread transmission and physical distancing is difficult, such as on public transport, in shops or in other confined or crowded environments.”.

Currently, Canadian health officials recommend wearing masks in public places, particularly indoors where physical distancing is not possible, but there is no formal requirement. 

WATCH: Canada’s chief public health officer explains new evidence for mask-wearing. Story continues below.


Alberta’s plan to distribute masks through fast food drive-thrus has already been mired in criticism about the number that’s been distributed, access for people without vehicles and ensuring Albertans only take their allotted one package of masks per person.

Here’s what you need to know about Alberta’s new fast food drive-thru mask program. 

How do you get masks from the drive-thru?

According to the government, people can go through the drive-thru of any of the 600 McDonald’s, A&W or Tim Horton’s locations with drive-thrus in Alberta and ask for a package. Franchise owners of those locations have been asked to not distribute the masks inside the restaurants. The masks will not be available at locations without drive-thrus, and 

No purchase is necessary. 

How many masks do people get and how will they enforce it?

The government plans to distribute 20 million single-use masks in packages of four. Restaurant staff at each location are responsible for sorting and packaging the masks on-site using bags and stickers provided by the government. 

According to Shandro, partnering with the fast-food restaurants will cut down on distribution costs for the government, which ended up being $350,000. 

The masks are being distributed on an “honour system,” and people are asked to respect the limit of one package per Albertan. 

In an email to HuffPost Canada, Alberta Pandemic Response Planning Team communications director Blair Phelps confirmed the government will not be directly enforcing the mask limits. There is no requirement to present a health card or justify how many packages of masks people are picking up.

Phelps did not indicate the government was planning to prevent the resale of the masks. 

Like many free promotions, the masks seem to be flying out the drive-thru windows. Albertans used social media to note some locations that are already out of the masks.

How long will four masks actually last one person?

The masks are single-use surgical masks, meaning you should throw them out after one use. 

According to the World Health Organization, these are the best practices for wearing non-medical single-use masks:

  • Wash your hands before touching the mask
  • Ensure the coloured side is facing out
  • Cover your nose, mouth and chin
  • Avoid touching the mask while wearing
  • Discard immediately after wearing
  • Wash your hands after.

You should replace your mask if it becomes soiled or damp, or if you or someone else has touched it. Research has shown that reused masks are not nearly as effective at preventing the spread of COVID-19. 

Officials recommend that Albertans  still purchase their own masks from retailers.

“This is not meant to be able to provide Albertans with an unlimited supply,” Shandro said.

What about people without cars or who can’t get to a drive-thru?

The free mask packs will not be available at locations without drive-thrus, such as those in mall food courts.

The government is encouraging people without cars or those who don’t live near a drive-thru to have friends or family pick up their allotted masks for them. 

Albertans can also call 2-1-1 for assistance obtaining their masks as “an absolute last resort” according to government officials. 

The province is also distributing a portion of the masks to municipalities and First Nations that don’t have drive-thrus and are located at least 50 kilometres from one. 

What’s the reaction been like?

Shandro drew some criticism Monday for promoting the new campaign while not actually modelling proper mask behaviour.

In a promotional video filmed inside a Tim Horton’s, Shandro is not wearing a mask while explaining the program and touting the “massive plane” used to bring in the shipment of 20 million masks. 

In the three-minute video, unmasked warehouse employees are also shown moving masks around the Alberta Health Services warehouse.

The video does not include any direct information on proper mask protocol. Stickers on the mask packages remind wearers to wash their hands before and after use, but do not indicate that the masks are meant to only be used once or how to tell when to replace your mask.

Many Albertans have criticized the government’s prioritization of a distribution system that relies on access to vehicles, , rather than using a more accessible system such as via Canada Post or pharmacies. 

In a Twitter thread last week, Shandro defended the choice of fast food drive-thrus. He argued that mailing masks through Canada Post would cost too much, and distributing through pharmacies could lead to large line-ups. 

 Where else is doing this?

France mailed reusable cloth masks to residents starting at the end of April.

Residents of Luxembourg — which mandated mask-wearing in last month — were allotted 50 masks through a voucher distributed through their local communes. 
Singapore has undergone three different phases of mask distribution plans. Most recently, residents with valid ID were able to receive a free three-layer cloth reusable mask from 24-hour vending machines at community clubs in the country.