As Suri Weinberg-Linsky wandered the aisles of her small, west-end book shop Monday, she was pleasantly surprised: Customers were still wearing masks.
“I haven’t had to remind a single person today that they need to wear a mask. Everyone’s had one on when they come in, and I’ve been here since 10:30 (am),” said Weinberg-Linsky, owner of Squibb’s Books and Stationery, Toronto’s oldest bookstore.
On the first day that Ontario’s province-wide mask mandate was lifted, Weinberg-Linsky was one of several business owners insisting customers and staff still wear masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Elsewhere, business owners, staff and customers were trying to strike a balance, partly to avoid the heated arguments which took place when mask mandates were first introduced. Retailers, gyms, movie theatres, restaurants and bars are now allowed to have customers and staff mask-free. Many, including Walmart, Cineplex, IKEA and Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, have made masking voluntary.
While there hasn’t been a flood of angry incidents so far, it’s still early, said Ryan Mallough, Ontario regional director of the Canadian Federation for Independent Business.
“It’s Monday afternoon. I think we’ll all get a better sense of things on the weekend, when more people will be out and about, especially if the weather’s nice,” said Mallough, adding that many businesses are taking a nonconfrontational approach.
Even though some owners would prefer to keep their staff and customers masked, many are letting everyone choose for themselves, even if that means having to bite their tongue.
“I don’t think a lot of businesses are in a position to say no to customers after the last two years,” said Mallough.
Some business owners also worry that they’d be vulnerable to lawsuits if they tried to enforce a masking rule now that the provincial law is gone, Mallough said.
“Sure, they might win if it went to court, but it still takes time and money to fight, and small business owners don’t really have a lot of either to spare right now,” said Mallough.
Still, those business owners who keep staff and customers masking are on very solid legal ground, said Allan C. Hutchinson, a professor at York University’s Osgoode Hall Law School.
“I’d be really surprised if any court struck any of these down,” said Hutchinson, adding that many people objecting to mask and vaccine mandates have a fundamental misunderstanding of the law.
“No, your charter rights aren’t being infringed. The charter only applies to government actions,” said Hutchinson.
While theoretically a mask opponent might have a better legal argument under Ontario’s Human Rights Code, Hutchinson said that’s also the longest of legal long shots.
“As long as you’re applying the rule to everyone equally, I don’t see it contravening provincial human rights codes,” said Hutchinson.
For Weinberg-Linsky, who’s wearing a protective KN-95 mask, the logic of keeping her store a masked zone is simple.
“I’ve got an 84-year-old father-in-law, my own health issues, and we’re in a neighborhood that’s had high COVID rates,” said Weinberg-Linsky.
At Fox Cinema in the Beaches, moviegoers — and staff — will have to wear masks and show proof of vaccine for the foreseeable future.
In an email announcing the policy, the Fox — and its Ottawa sister cinema ByTowne — said it was simply listening to its customers.
“The vast majority of our audience members, along with our staff, have told us loud and clear that this is the best choice for the Fox,” the email said. “We have not set an end date for this policy, but will continue to review the situation and our audience members’ wishes on an ongoing basis. As always, we’re thankful for your patience, understanding and support as we continue to navigate the situation.”
At Toronto clothing and jewelry company Coal Miner’s Daughter’s three stores, customers and staff are still required to wear masks.
“We feel this is a small thing we can all do to keep each other and our workplace safe, for our team, our families, and the more vulnerable folks among us in our communities,” Coal Miner’s Daughter posted on Instagram. “We really can’t wait to unmask too, but we need a little more time. We deeply appreciate your co-operation and will not accept in-store shoppers not wearing a mask.”
At Mirvish Productions, spokesperson John Karastamatis said theatregoers will still need to wear a mask and show proof of vaccination until at least May 1.
So far, reaction to the mandate has been mostly positive, with a handful of exceptions that Mirvish isn’t particularly concerned about, Karastamatis said.
“When we said we were keeping the vaccine mandate, we got some emails from anti-vax people, maybe about seven or eight. ‘You’re infringing on my freedom,’ that type of stuff. We realized that not even a single one of them was a customer of ours,” said Karastamatis.
Keeping the masks and vaccine passports makes sense, he added.
“In a theatre, you’re sitting beside strangers, shoulder to shoulder,” said Karastamatis, adding that it’s hardly an onerous obligation.
“Showing your proof of vaccination isn’t a huge inconvenience. Wearing a mask isn’t a huge inconvenience. It shows your responsibility toward other people.”
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