A political push to revive mandatory masking indoors in London, a day after it ended, is getting soft support from the region’s top doctor, though he stopped well short of endorsing it.
It’s also driving “significant concern” for other politicians, including the acting mayor, who said city councilors aren’t experts in public health policy.
Council will hold a special committee meeting Tuesday to debate a proposal from councilors Jesse Helmer, Stephen Turner and Maureen Cassidy to re-introduce a mask bylaw until at least May 9, and lift it when case counts, hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19 fall further.
“We, as a municipality, and us as a councilwe have a responsibility to try to do what’s right given all the evidence we’ve got,” Helmer said.
“You just look at the incidence of the virus in the community, the people who are dying of COVID-19 in our city over the past few months, it’s unacceptably high. I just don’t think we can sit on our hands and do nothing when we know what’s happened in our community.”
Monday marked the first day without provincial requirements to wear face masks in most indoor public places, a measure designed to help reduce the spread of COVID-19. Doug Ford’s provincial government is leaving the choice up to individuals whether to don a mask before going indoors, though businesses still can set their own rules for customer entry.
London initially created its own masking bylaw for public, indoor locations in July 2020, as did many other municipalities, but allowed it to expire at the end of that year because provincial rules made the local requirement redundant.
“I wish it weren’t necessary, I wish the provincial rules around masking were still in place. At the beginning of the pandemic, municipalities had to act independently of the province to put some rules in place,” Helmer said.
Dr. Alex Summers, the medical officer of health for London and Middlesex, said at a virtual media briefing on Monday “the use of masks remains strongly recommended.”
“Even though that masking requirement is being lifted, the health unit continues to recommend that individuals wear a mask and remain respectful of others, whether they choose to wear a mask or not,” he said.
“COVID remains in our community and masks are an effective way to slow transmission, as we’ve learned over the last number of years,” he said later.
Still, Summers stressed COVID-19 vaccines are the most important layer of protection against the virus. When asked if he’d support council re-instituting its own bylaw, Summers was vague.
“There are considerations around the risks and benefits of a mandate that need to be considered by organizations and decision makers,” he said.
“Our recommendation continues to be for individuals to consider masking in indoor environments and for organizations to consider the tools in their toolbox to encourage masking, relative to the risk they appreciate in their setting.”
Pushed on that later, Summers said he “can’t speak to whether or not a mandate is the best course of action. That truly is something for council to consider.”
But deputy mayor Josh Morgan, filling in for Mayor Ed Holder on Monday, said he doesn’t want councilors to make public health decisions without a strong recommendation from the top doctor.
“I do not believe that councilors are public health experts and I’m not convinced that we should be moving into setting public health policy. When we first passed that mask bylaw back in the summer of 2020, we didn’t do that in isolation. It was a move that was made on the strong urgent and unequivocal recommendation of the then-medical officer of health,” Morgan said.
“Without a firm recommendation from the chief medical officer of health in our region, I would have meaningful concerns going down that path, myself.”
London was one of many municipalities with mask bylaws early in the pandemic.
Hamilton city council, which still had its 2020 bylaw requiring masks and physical distancing in public, indoor spaces, voted Monday to scrap those rules and follow provincial direction.
Helmer said the onus is on council to create mask rules if the province won’t, pointing to other countries where death rates have spiked after dropping public health measures to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
“I know people want it to be over, they want to go back to normal, they don’t want to wear masks anymore. But masks work, it’s not over, and I think it’s necessary,” he said.
“We’ll see what council thinks tomorrow. I really value the advice of the medical officer of health, even when I don’t necessarily agree with it.”
The bylaw proposed by Helmer, Turner and Cassidy – who chaired the board of health for the majority of the pandemic – would not apply to schools, daycares, courts, or buildings that are only accessible to employees.
There are currently 21 people in hospital with COVID-19, including five or fewer in intensive care and five or fewer at the Children’s Hospital. Another death from the virus was recorded Saturday, a woman in her 80s, bringing the total pandemic death toll in London and Middlesex to 356.
Though case counts are much less reliable now that testing is only available in very specific circumstances, 174 new COVID-19 infections were reported during the weekend and on Monday.
Council’s strategic priorities and policy committee, which includes all members of council, will meet Tuesday at 2:30 pm to debate a mask bylaw, before the council meeting begins at 4 pm