Protesters oppose face mask order

People gather at a peaceful protest at the Hanover Heritage Square on July 12. The protest was held against the Grey Bruce Health Unit's face covering mandate. KEITH DEMPSEY

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About 60 people took part in a weekend protest against the Grey Bruce Health Unit’s order that will require most people to wear face masks in commercial establishments.

The protest took place at Hanover Heritage Square on Sunday, after medical officer of health Ian Arra gave notice last week that he was going to issue the order, but before it was officially announced earlier this week. The order comes into effect Friday and covers people in public areas of commercial establishments.

“We are protesting because we want to see the retraction of the Grey Bruce Health Unit’s face covering mandate,” said Megan Kuntz, who helped organize the protest. “There are several significant anticipated harms from the widespread use of masks in the general population, as well as not enough randomized control trials to prove either the safety or efficiency of such a mandate.”

Kuntz added that the protesters believe the order is unjustified, “and is a violation of our civil liberties.”

Grey-Bruce enters Stage 3 of Ontario’s reopening plan, Dr. Ian Arra, the region’s medical officer of health, has said.

Arra issued a notice July 7 about the order, which was made official on Tuesday. It instructs all commercial establishments in Grey Bruce to ensure effective measures are in place to maintain a physical distancing of two metres among all employees and clients, to ensure the availability of alcohol-based hand rub at all entrances and exits, and to make the best effort (verbal) to restrict persons from entering the premises or remaining within the premises if not wearing a face covering.

If someone isn’t wearing a mask, or takes one off for an extended period, staff are to remind them of the order. But “there is no need” to turn away customers who don’t wear one, Arra said in a news release. Staff will have to wear masks too, but they will not be required in areas not open to the public.

The mask order coincides with Ontario entering Stage 3 of the province’s reopening plan.

“There is increased risk of transmission of COVID-19 as the Provincial Stage 3 reopening plan will include permitted activities with high contact intensity and that would require significant modifications to maintain public health safety. Additionally, reopening of commercial establishments will increase the frequency of contact and limit opportunities for physical distancing. The risk of cases and outbreaks of COVID-19 in Grey and Bruce counties increase without adequate preventative measures as identified in the order,” Arra said in a news release.

The order will remain in place for four weeks and could be renewed.

“This will provide time to develop more permanent solutions such as municipal bylaws or provincial regulations,” the release said. “We are seeing increasing complacency in the community with earlier recommendations of physical distancing.”

The order doesn’t cover some settings, such as churches, transit services, schools, libraries, health care offices and professional offices, which may already be covered by others provincial rules to limit COVID-19 transmission. Still, the health unit strongly recommends people wear face coverings in such settings.

There will be exceptions for children younger than two years and for those younger than five years of age, or developmentally at that level, who would be unable to tolerate or refuse to wear one.

Other exceptions will be allowed for those who find a mask intolerable due to any medical condition (no medical note needed); or for reasons under the Ontario Human Rights Code, including religious reasons.

“Asking people to wear a face covering is another tool we can use to prevent spread of COVID-19,” Arra said in the release. But it must be used with distancing, hand hygiene and the same care that people have been taking to limit the spread of the virus.

– With files from Scott Dunn, Greg Cowan