TORONTO — Masks will no longer be part of the required dress code in most Ontario public spaces come Monday, as the government turns the public health measure into an individual choice.
Weeks after the province lifted proof-of-vaccination rules and capacity limits, face coverings won't be mandatory in schools, retail settings and other spaces.
Hospitals, long-term care homes and public transit and some other areas will keep masks until the end of April, when the province aims to roll back all remaining public health rules.
Provincial politicians and top health officials say COVID-19 indicators have improved enough to remove mask rules, which have also been lifted in other jurisdictions across Canada and around the world.
Some are celebrating the change, but other Ontarians remain wary of the virus risk – as well as a lack of data on cases since the province stopped widespread PCR testing – and say they plan to keep masking after Monday.
Lisa Lam said she will keep wearing a mask at her retail job. Lam said she felt social pressure to stop masking last summer in British Columbia when the official mandate in that province lifted for a couple of months, but she intends to stand her ground this time.
"There's no freaking way I'm going to change my mind about it," she said outside a Toronto shopping mall. "I think it’s way too soon."
Lam said she's uneasy about losing a protective barrier when customers stop masking, noting that people she knows are still contracting COVID-19 and there's a lack of comprehensive data from the province about the number of cases.
The province restricted access to gold-standard PCR tests in December when the contagious Omicron wave strained public health resources.
Dr. Kieran Moore, the province’s top doctor, has said the true number of cases is close to 10 times higher than the daily case counts, which had a seven-day average of 1,821 as of Friday. The province’s expert science advisers said last week that there are between 15,000 and 20,000 cases in the province each day.
Premier Doug Ford has repeatedly stated that people are tired of COVID-19 measures like masks and vaccine mandates, though he stresses people should be allowed to keep wearing them if they want to.
He has said he plans to keep wearing a mask at work in the provincial legislature "for the first few days" after the mandate lifts on Monday.
"If you want to keep your mask on, God bless you, you can keep your mask on. And if you don't, then that's fine, too," Ford said recently at a press conference.
Local health officials haven't gone so far as to mandate masks locally, but some are recommending that residents keep wearing them.
The Northwestern Health Unit issued a news release last week saying masking is still recommended even with the measure lifting, noting that the area's case rate "remains the highest in the province."
"Evidence shows that masking provides an additional layer of protection and is effective in preventing the spread of COVID-19," said Dr. Kit Young Hoon, the region's medical officer of health. "One should consider the benefits of masking and the higher risk in our region when making the decision on whether to wear a mask in indoor public settings."
The health unit covering Thunder Bay, Ont., also advised individuals to assess their risk and be aware that the virus is still circulating.
"Wearing a mask is now largely your choice, but this virus will still be around for a while," it said in a tweet. "Throughout this transition period, we encourage you to mask up in indoor settings, especially if they are crowded or poorly ventilated."
School boards that wanted more time to keep mask mandates have been ordered by Moore to adhere to the official end date set for next week. Child-care centres can keep mask mandates, since they operate as private businesses, the government said.
Brenda Maguire of Port Elgin, Ont., said she plans to keep wearing a mask on the job. She said she expected to feel excited taking down posters in her office notifying people of the mandatory mask rule, but she thinks the change is coming too soon.
"I kind of thought it would be at a time when everybody would be in agreement that yes, COVID is over, or at least manageable," she said.
Maguire said she's concerned by estimates of high daily case counts and reports from friends and family still catching the virus.
"It seems like it's not the right time to be lifting masks at this point, especially when it's something that is so easy to put on," she said.
Recent projections from the Ontario COVID-19 Science Advisory Table said hospitalizations and intensive care admissions will likely rise as public health measures lift, but won't reach levels seen at the peak of the Omicron wave.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 20, 2022.
Holly McKenzie-Sutter, The Canadian Press