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County council divided, votes against sweeping mask rules

"I think it’s appropriate for us to sit back and look at what the objective of wearing masks is all about,” Midland mayor says
2020-03-11 County JO-001
County of Simcoe council chambers. Jessica Owen/BarrieToday

Are you confused about whether mask-wearing is actually mandatory?

If so, you aren’t the only one.

During the County of Simcoe’s committee of the whole and council meeting on Tuesday morning, councillors seemed split on the possibility of staff drafting a county-wide bylaw to make mask-wearing mandatory, citing practical issues of enforcement and concerns of politicizing what some believe should be solely a health-unit decision.

On July 7, the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit announced a new order making face coverings mandatory for anyone entering an indoor public space and using public transit. However, there are exemptions for those with health conditions and the mask rule is only in place as long as the province’s state of emergency remains in place.

Wasaga Beach Mayor Nina Bifolchi said she sat in on a health unit call last week where Dr. Charles Gardner, the medical officer of health, made the announcement.

“I don’t know if we were asking for leadership, but more a decision. This is not a political decision. This is a health-unit decision,” she said on Tuesday. “My own opinion on that is we ended up with kind of a wishy-washy policy that is still causing confusion in the community. Politicians are not health experts. What is mandatory should come from Dr. Gardner, it should not be us passing bylaws that we don’t have the resources to actually enforce.

“We will be getting phone calls (saying) ‘I saw someone at the local grocery store without a mask,’ and our staff are then expected to run out and deal with that and I can tell you, in Wasaga Beach, we do not have the resources to do that,” she added.

During the health unit call on July 7, Gardner was asked if the science showed that mandatory masks should be worn all the time while in public.

In an interview on Wednesday, Dr. Colin Lee, associate medical officer of health with the health unit, clarified Gardner’s comments.

The science around the effectiveness of universal masking for COVID-19 prevention is young, because COVID has only been around for a few months,” said Lee. “There are a lot of emerging studies that are showing that countries that adopted universal masking early, such as Asian countries who had the habit of wearing masks even before COVID, seem to have lower rates of COVID in the initial wave.

From a mechanistic point of view, saliva and nasal secretions contain COVID. If you have a mask on, less will come out into the air,” he added.

Lee said the situation is urgent and without a vaccine being made available yet, it’s important for the general population to use any tool they can to prevent spread.

“The price of (mask wearing) is low. The potential gains are great,” said Lee. “Science is always evolving, but in the absence of perfect science, we cannot ignore this intervention.”

Lee said the new policy from the health unit is complex, and isn’t meant to cover every exception as that would be impossible, but the policy was intended to encourage a behaviour change. When asked about medical exemptions and the challenges associated with enforcing the mask-wearing policy, Lee said he’s hoping people will be compassionate.

“I urge the public to be be kind to each other and to understand that everyone is just trying to do the right thing. If people can’t wear them due to health reasons or developmental reasons, try to help them navigate the space safely,” said Lee.

To view a series of evidentiary articles from experts that have informed the health unit’s decision on mandatory mask wearing, click here.

Back at county council on Tuesday, some councillors expressed concern regarding exemptions to mask wearing.

“It says it’s mandatory but it also says there’s exemptions if you have a religious reason or medical issue. It seems to me like the order doesn’t have a lot of teeth to it,” said Deputy Warden Barry Burton.

Oro-Medonte Township Mayor Harry Hughes said he felt setting an expectation for society was important.

“We know masks do help. I know the issue with passing a bylaw is we can’t enforce it, but I think by sending a letter of support we’ll set that expectation. Frankly, most members of our society are compliant. I do think our voice should be in there somewhere that we support the direction the medical officer has taken,” said Hughes.

Midland Mayor Stewart Strathearn said the dialogue around mask wearing has consistently been changing since March.

“Consensus is shifting fairly quickly toward the use of masks. I think it’s appropriate for us to sit back and look at what the objective of wearing masks is all about,” he said.

When it comes to people who can’t wear masks due to medical reasons, Strathearn said those same medical reasons should be a good reason for those people to stay at home.

“I think enforcement will likely come from peers,” he said.

If a bylaw were to be passed, New Tecumseth Deputy Mayor Richard Norcross said he would prefer it were county-wide as opposed to bylaws for each individual municipalities.

“I don’t know when I’m passing between New Tecumseth and Adjala-Tosorontio, Bradford and Innisfil, or Midland and Penetanguishene. My thoughts are, it’s hard for people to differentiate between the different municipalities. It would make it easier to understand and follow the rules if there was one general rule for the entire county,” he said.

Tiny Township Deputy Mayor Steffen Walma agreed.

“It’s a further deterrent. Even if we don’t have the resources to enforce all the time, even just having the ability to do so is a win,” said Walma. “It’s not necessarily our residents that misbehave. It’s people from out-of-area who don’t know what the SMDHU has done.”

Committee of the whole voted 15-14 to defeat recommending having county staff begin work drafting a bylaw to be presented at the August meeting.

However, when it came time to ratify during the council meeting immediately following committee of the whole, Walma spoke up to make a final plea to councillors to reconsider their points of view.

“I personally believe passing this bylaw would give credence, and would give us access to the county communication department to message the importance of this,” said Walma.

Wasaga Beach Deputy Mayor Sylvia Bray agreed with Walma that having the county communications department help with spreading the message would be a beneficial resource.

“Perhaps the Welcome to Simcoe County signs could have banners added so anybody coming up Hwy. 400 at major entryways would see something that says ‘We are a community that requires masks,’ and if they were to do that, that artwork could be made available to member municipalities,” said Bray.

Bifolchi reiterated her points made during the committee discussion.

“To pass warm and fuzzy bylaws because we think it’s politically correct does not sit well with me,” she said.

Adjala-Tosorontio Mayor Floyd Pinto said his municipality also didn’t have the resources to enforce a mandatory mask bylaw.

Simcoe County Warden George Cornell clarified that the policy from the health unit did engage municipal bylaw enforcement, but also engaged the Ontario Provincial Police to help with enforcement.

“The public health unit also isn’t in a position to do that enforcement themselves in its entirety,” said Cornell.

In the end, council defeated the motion to have staff draft a county-wide bylaw by their next meeting in August, however ratified the recommendation to send a letter of support to the health unit.