You can keep the masks off, London.
City politicians roundly trounced a proposal by three councilors to revive a local bylaw requiring masks indoors as a COVID-19 precaution.
The prospect of trying to overrule the Ontario government, which removed most indoor face-masking rules as of Monday, didn’t play well with most of council, which met as a committee Tuesday afternoon to debate the idea.
“I am not a medical professional, nor as a councilor do I have the resources to have top medical advisers as part of my staff,” Ward 8 Coun. Steve Lehman said.
“How can I, in my role as a councilor, second guess the province and our local health unit that do have those resources? The proposed bylaw to continue masking would be extremely divisive and confusing.”
Councilors Jesse Helmer, Stephen Turner and Maureen Cassidy wanted their colleagues to bring back a previous city bylaw, enacted in July 2020 early in the pandemic, requiring masks in almost all public indoor spaces — but not schools and daycares, among the few exceptions — for anyone over age two. The bylaw expired at the end of that year after provincial rules made it redundant.
The motion was defeated by a vote of 10-3. Only the three proponents voted in favour. Mayor Ed Holder and Coun. Mo Salih were absent. All others were opposed.
“Masking is the cheapest, least intrusive thing that people can continue to do,” Helmer, the Ward 4 councilor, said to open Tuesday’s debate.
“I know it’s not popular with a lot of people right now. I do think it’s necessary for the next little while . . . we can’t put our heads in the sand and just pretend everything is fine.”
The region’s top doctor joined the meeting virtually to answer a flurry of questions from politicians.
Alex Summers, the medical officer of health for London and Middlesex County, was asked about using his powers through an order under Section 22 of the Health Protection and Promotion Act to thwart communicable disease.
Though Summers spoke strongly in favor of using masks as one layer of protection to reduce the spread of COVID-19, he said London and Middlesex is under no unique threat from the virus compared to the rest of the province, which would be required for him to order a local mask mandate out of step with the rest of Ontario.
“In this context, there is not, in the Middlesex-London region, a new and emerging risk,” he said.
The push to return to indoor masking just a few days after it was lifted by the province reinvigorated debate among Londoners on the divisive issue, many of whom took to social media to support or rail against the idea.
The London Chamber of Commerce also penned a strongly worded letter to council calling the proposal “ill advised.”
“We believe that such a bylaw would only serve to hurt local businesses who are still suffering from the economic impacts of the pandemic, as once again local business owners would be responsible for enforcement or risk facing fines,” chief executive Graham Henderson wrote.
“Furthermore, it would put some of our hardest-hit sectors, like tourism and culture, at a disadvantage as travelers and staycationers choose neighboring municipalities without mask bylaws over London.”
WHAT OTHERS SAID
Ward 2 Coun. Shawn Lewis:
“The people we are elected to represent. . . have to have a voice here, too. We cannot dismiss that.”
Ward 5 Coun. Maureen Cassidy:
“There are many people who do choose to follow rules. It’s a signal to the community that this is still happening.”
Ward 6 Coun. Mariam Hamou:
“Forcing masks, as politicians, without at least our own medical officer of health mandating is, in my opinion, an overreach of government in this case. . . There is no extra threat, so why must Londoners be mandated to mask up if no other place in Ontario is masking up?”
Ward 11 Coun. Stephen Turnerwho referred to the sinking of SS Victoria steamboat in the Thames River, which killed 182 people:
“Health decisions shouldn’t be made on a populist basis. . . if learning to live with COVID means we lose another SS Victoria every year, it’s not a risk I’m willing to take.”