Why Mandatory Masks Indoors Helps Fight COVID-19 In Canada

As of July 7, Torontonians will be required to wear masks in enclosed public spaces to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

UPDATE: This story has been changed since it was first published with up-to-date information on mask requirements in cities.

Over the last couple of weeks, a particular genre of amateur filmmaking has begun clogging up our social media feeds. Each is filmed in some seemingly arbitrary location, a setting unaccustomed to the spotlight of internet infamy. Grocery stores. Curb-side cafes. Local Walmarts. In all of these clips, the viewer bears witness to the unfolding of a modern horror story: customers, emboldened by their private sense of justice, refuse to wear their masks.

Most of these clips have been filmed in the United States, but that isn’t to say versions of them don’t occur in Canada, too. At the end of May, for example, the owners of a convenience store in Toronto reported being attacked by four men after forcibly removing a customer who refused to wear a mask. One of the owners said it was tough to listen to the sounds of her own screams on the video recording from a camera outside. The other’s face was bruised for six weeks after.

Municipalities across Ontario have been “seriously exploring” the idea of making face masks mandatory in indoor spaces over the last couple of weeks. And on June 30, as if to answer that strain of bewildering video, Toronto City Council voted unanimously in favour of requiring people to cover their faces in all enclosed public places, including:

  • retail stores
  • convenience stores
  • malls, shopping plazas
  • grocery stores, bakeries, farmer’s markets (enclosed areas)
  • restaurants, bars (when permitted to open for indoor service)
  • indoor recreational facilities, gyms, swimming pools (when permitted to open)
  • libraries
  • community centres
  • community service agencies
  • personal service settings
  • churches, mosque, synagogue, temples and faith settings
  • art galleries, museums, aquariums, zoos
  • banquet halls, convention centres, arenas, stadiums, and other event spaces
  • real estate facilities such as open house, presentation centres
  • common areas in hotels, motels and short-term rentals (e.g. lobbies, elevators, meeting rooms)
  • entertainment facilities including concert venues, theatres, cinemas, casinos
  • business offices open to the public

“It is about respecting and protecting each other,” Mayor John Tory said, per CBC, at a news conference on occasion of the temporary bylaw. “We know we are at a critical time in the fight against COVID-19, and that we must do everything we can to avoid the flare ups that we’ve seen in other places.”

This made Toronto, along with Windsor, Ont., one of the first cities in Canada to officially mandate face coverings in indoor public spaces. In Ottawa and Montreal, masks are now required (or will soon be required) indoors. Ontario’s Peel Region, which sits just west of Toronto, has also made masks mandatory in all commercial and indoor spaces. Calgary city council has also approved the same bylaw, which will go into effect starting August 1.

What’s in the new bylaw?

The new rule will go into effect on July 7, and corresponds with a matching initiative, launched July 2, to make face coverings mandatory on public transit. (There is a plan to circulate one million non-medical masks to transit users, with a particular focus on those from low-income and marginalized communities.) It’s all part of an effort to reduce the spread of the coronavirus as we wade further into Stage 2 of the pandemic.

Though Mayor Tory has announced the city won’t be aggressively enforcing the new bylaw, the city solicitor told CBC that she anticipates the corresponding fine to be “in the ballpark” of $750 to $1,000 — a lot of money, for not wearing a mask.

There are a couple of exceptions, as there are to any rule. Those who cannot wear masks for medical reasons, as well as children under the age of two, will not be required to cover their faces. Similarly, residents will be allowed to temporarily remove masks while having meals, receiving services or doing fitness activities. The bylaw also won’t apply to apartment buildings, condos, childcare facilities, schools, or unenclosed areas like patios.

Watch: How effective are homemade face masks? Story continues below.

Why does this matter?

The decision comes on the heels of a new study released on Thursday in Proceedings of the Natural Academy of the United States of America, which learned that mandatory face masks helped prevent more than 78,000 infections over a month’s span in Italy, and more than 66,000 during a three-week span in New York City.

Basically, bylaws like the one just introduced in Toronto have been scientifically proven to prevent interhuman transmission of the virus.

If you can recall — and who has any sense of time, nowadays — it was just back in May when over 100 of the world’s most prominent academics signed an open letter asking the government to mandate face coverings in public spaces.

After an international cross-disciplinary review of scientific research conducted by 19 experts, they called on governments to mandate the masks in all public places, as well as business leaders to require their employees to wear them even where it wasn’t required by local law.

“I think the biggest thing with COVID now that shapes all of this guidance on masks is that we can’t tell who’s infected,” infectious disease specialist Peter Chin-Hong told UCSF. “You can’t look in a crowd and say, oh, that person should wear mask. There’s a lot of asymptomatic infection, so everybody has to wear a mask.”

A refresher on the benefits to wearing masks

Since the beginning of the pandemic, masks have been a political flashpoint in the national conversation about how to stay safe. At first, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officially discouraged people from wearing them, but later circled back on their recommendations after more evidence had surfaced.

“It is a simple, inexpensive measure that can have a significant impact in reducing the spread of the virus,” Dr. Simone Wildes, an infectious disease physician at South Shore Health in Massachusetts, told ABC News. “We have to remember if we don’t take these measures there will be more cases and more deaths.”

The benefits to wearing masks in public are manifold: accumulating evidence has found they can both prevent you from spreading respiratory droplets to others, in the event that you’re infected, and might prevent some of the viral particles from worming their way into your nose and mouth, though that argument has been much shakier than the former.

Many people are still out there who are asymptomatic, and don’t realize they’re infected by the virus. Making masks mandatory for everyone helps to reduce the risk of transmission in these scenarios. If everyone takes precautions, everyone is safer.