TORONTO – Later this month, the mandatory mask requirement in most settings in Ontario will be a thing of the past.
Dr. Kieran Moore, Ontario’s chief medical officer of health, announced on March 9 the mandatory mask mandate will be lifted for most settings, including schools, beginning March 21.
The masking mandate will remain for public transit, long-term care/retirement homes and other health care settings, congregate care settings, jails and shelters.
“With the peak of Omicron behind us, Ontario has been able to cautiously and gradually move through its reopening milestones,” said Moore, noting the majority of public health and workplace safety measures have now been lifted.
According to data presented by Moore, COVID-19 hospitalizations have decreased 81 per cent compared to the peak of Jan. 16, and new hospital admissions have decreased 79% during that time.
The data shows an average of 390 new admissions per day the week of Jan. 10 to 16, with last week’s average dropping to 82 new admissions per day.
ICU admissions have also dropped 77% during that time period, and the test positivity rate has dropped from 34.3% on Jan. 2 to 12% last week.
“We are now learning to manage and live with COVID-19 for the long-term,” said Moore.
“This necessitates a shift to a more balanced response to the pandemic and changes are being made to province’s pandemic response to reflect a longer-term approach.
“Thanks to our high vaccination rates and natural immunity, as well as the arrival of other therapeutics and antivirals, Ontario has the tools necessary to manage the impact of this virus.”
Moore asked Ontarians to respect those individuals who choose to continue wearing a mask after March 21.
He also noted residents should be prepared for the return of mask wearing if a new variant of concern emerges, or potentially during the winter months “when COVID and other respiratory viruses are likely to circulate again.”
“For those most vulnerable to the virus, it is still strongly recommended that you continue to wear a mask,” said Moore.
“And please continue to respect the masking requirements that remain in place, such as federal requirements for returning international travellers.”
With the lifting of mask mandates, Moore said we can expect certain public health indicators, such as cases and hospitalizations, to increase slightly “as Ontarians increasingly interact with one another.”
“Removing the mask mandate does not mean the risk is gone,” he cautioned.
“COVID-19 transmission is still occurring across the province and masks can help protect you and others from becoming infected with COVID-19.”
Moore also announced changes to isolation requirements on Wednesday.
Now, members of a household where someone has tested positive for COVID-19 no longer need to isolate, as long as certain requirements are met.
Those over the age of 18 with three doses, those under 18 considered fully vaccinated, or those who have previously tested positive within the past 90 days may leave the home as long as they are showing no symptoms. Currently, those individuals have to isolate for five days.
The complete list of changes announced by Moore can be read at Ontario.ca.
Last October the province announced plans to lift proof of vaccination requirements in most settings by February and remove its mask mandate by April.
Those plans were temporarily delayed by the Omicron variant and a massive spike in cases across the province in December and January.
On Jan. 17 students returned to in-person learning and on March 1 the province removed capacity limits and proof-of-vaccination requirements.
Liberals, teachers’ union speak out against decision
The Ontario Liberal Party and the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) were quick to oppose the province’s decision to lift the mask mandate on March 21.
In a press release on Wednesday, ETFO President Karen Brown said the decision to lift the mask mandate was made due to the approaching provincial election, not based on science.
“Throughout the pandemic, Ontarians have relied on public health officials to lead with a science- and evidence-based approach,” said Brown.
“Unfortunately, it appears that a fast-approaching June election is influencing politicians’ decisions to lift COVID-19 safety measures.
“Lifting the mask mandate too soon may result in further disruption to in-person learning and negative impacts on the health and safety of ETFO members, students and their families.
“Ontarians deserve stability and safety, not more chaos.”
The ETFO cited a recent statement from Ontario’s Children’s Health Coalition (OCHC), which stated “the evidence is clear: masking helps prevent transmission.”
The coalition added “now is not the time” to lift the mask mandate in schools.
Ontario Liberal Party Leader Steven Del Duca also spoke out against the decision, saying Premier Doug Ford “just doesn’t learn from his mistakes.”
“I side with Ontario’s top children’s health experts who urged Doug Ford that ‘now is not the time’ to lift the masking requirements in schools,” said Del Duca.
He cited low vaccination rates in children aged 5 to 11 (29.4%), absence rates at Ontario schools (14% this week) and reduced testing capacity while positivity rates remain above 10% as reasons why masks should remain.
“While I accept the Chief Medical Officer of Health’s advice that Ontario should end mandatory mask restrictions outside of higher-risk, essential public services and areas later this month, I am drawing a line in the sand on our schools,” he said.
“I simply do not accept the argument that our kids’ schools are not higher-risk areas and essential, and the experts agree.
“We must wait a couple more weeks to make sure our kids will be safe.
Dr. Nicola Mercer, medical officer of health for Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Public Health (WDGPH), announced shortly after Moore’s press conference that the local mask mandate will also be dropped on March 21.
“We will continue to monitor local COVID-19 conditions and respond as the situation requires,” Mercer noted in a statement.
“While many of us are ready to take this next step, many are not,” she added.
“For families with children under five, members of our community with underlying health conditions and many who are just not ready to get ‘back to normal’, your concerns are very valid.
“Please continue to follow the public health measures that support … your families’ needs.”
Mercer introduced a Section 22 Order requiring face coverings in public settings such as stores and restaurants on June 10, 2020.
The order, later expanded and revised several times, also required businesses to provide hand sanitizer for customers.
It came into effect on June 12, 2020, about five weeks prior to the announcement of the provincial mask mandate.
While face coverings are no longer required on March 21, Mercer cautioned “there is no end date for the pandemic.
“We can each move forward only as quickly as our individual situations dictate,” she stated.
“As a community, we have done so much together during this pandemic. We must continue to treat each other with empathy and kindness.”
-With files from Chris Daponte