Ontario’s mask mandate lifts in most settings: A timeline and what to expect

From businesses to residents, we hit the streets and ask people about their thoughts on the mask mandate coming to an end tomorrow. Maleeha Sheikh reports.

By Lucas Casaletto

The Ford government is turning a critical public health measure into a choice.

Ontario’s most long-standing measure of protection against COVID-19 officially lifted Monday, with masks no longer required to be worn in most indoor public areas, including schools, child-care and retail settings.

Masking requirements will remain for public transit, long-term care, retirement homes and other health-care settings, congregate care settings, shelters, jails and homes for individuals with developmental disabilities.

The province says mask rules will end for all remaining settings on April 27.

The decision to lift masking comes after the chief medical officer of health, Dr. Kieran Moore, said BA.2 — a sublineage of the Omicron variant — is expected to spread and become dominant. The BA.2 variant is roughly 30 per cent more contagious than the original Omicron strain, but Moore stresses that it’s not likely to spike hospitalizations.

On that note, Ontario’s Science Advisory Table released updated COVID-19 modelling last week, concluding that the province will likely see a bump in hospitalizations and ICU occupancy as public health measures cease, noting that the increase won’t be as significant as seen in January.

The science table has stressed the importance of masks, with evidence suggesting transmission mainly happens indoors, where people are close together. The main purpose of a mask is to protect others, although there is some evidence they offer protection to wearers.

Ontario students organize walk out Monday to protest the end of mask mandate

Students at 11 Toronto high schools have organized a protest on Monday to oppose the end to mask mandates in Ontario schools.

The student group organizing the demonstration, Ontario Students For COVID Safety, says removing the mask mandate will put schools at risk. They are calling for mask mandates to be extended, broad PCR test access for students and staff, and COVID-19 cases to be reported.

“[We’re] calling for mask mandates to be extended in accordance with the recommendations of the Children’s Health Coalition,” the group says.

“As well, they call for access to PCR testing for staff and students; the reporting of COVID-19 cases in schools; and the cancellation of EQAO and other standardized tests during this stressful time.”

The protest is expected to get underway at 11 a.m. on Monday outside Albert Campbell Collegiate Institute in Scarborough.

RELATED: Children’s Health Coalition: School masking should have stayed in place longer

Last week, Moore rejected proposals to extend COVID-19 mask mandates at schools in multiple regions, including at Toronto District School Board (TDSB) facilities, in favour of asking staff and students to adhere to provincial guidelines.

As part of the provincial government’s decision to lift its masking mandate as of Monday, Moore has recommended that those most vulnerable to COVID-19 “should continue to wear a mask in select settings, including those immunocompromised or medically fragile.”

In a statement released Friday, the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board (HWDSB) said it would enforce mask-wearing until April 1, in contrast to the provincial guidelines.

“… We are reminding staff and students to wear a mask until April 1 and to exercise their choice by completing the mask exemption process, if needed,” wrote board chair, Dawn Danko.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford removes his mask to respond to a question during a press conference announcing the enhanced COVID-19 vaccine certificate system, at Queen’s Park in Toronto on Wednesday, September 1, 2021.
Photo: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Tijana Martin

Reopening Act expires March 28

The Reopening Ontario Act will expire, meaning Premier Doug Ford can’t use that legislation to issue new pandemic management orders.

The remaining orders under the act will last for another month, but the province can’t renew them again after that.

On November 24, Ford’s government extended its power to keep all emergency orders under the Reopening Ontario Act in place through the winter.

Ontario mask requirements to end in late April

On April 27, barring a significant turn of events or worsening COVID-19 indicators, essentially all public health measures against COVID-19 will end in Ontario.

Masks will no longer be required in long-term care homes, retirement homes, health-care settings, jails, shelters, congregate living settings and on public transit.

Directives from the chief medical officer of health will expire.

Those expiring orders include the requirement that healthcare workers wear fit-tested N95 masks and other personal protective equipment when working with COVID-19 patients, that hospitals and long-term care homes provide those masks and that hospitals accommodate patient transfers and resource sharing.

Also expiring are orders laying out requirements for long-term care homes around screening, outbreak preparedness, personal protective equipment and physical distancing, and high-quality mask requirements for paramedics.

The remaining orders under the Reopening Ontario Act, mostly involving the redeployment of health workers, will expire.

That means people can no longer be fined for violating those orders.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks to reporters after meeting with Antonio Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations, at United Nations headquarters, Monday, Sept. 20, 2021.

Other countries lifting mask mandates 

Many states and local governments across the U.S. have lessened COVID-19 mandates as cases of the Omicron variant have fallen steeply in recent weeks after a spike that began in December.

COVID-19 cases are waning in the U.S. and dropped globally in the last week by five per cent, but cases are rising in some places, including the United Kingdom, New Zealand and Hong Kong.

Rules around face coverings are easing across the UK. In England, masks are no longer legally required in most public spaces – although they are still recommended in some situations.

Italy, where the COVID-19 pandemic first erupted in the West in February 2020, is easing many restrictions over the coming weeks, including requirements for most workplace vaccination and mask-wearing.

Masks will still be required through April 30 for indoor venues like restaurants, gyms, pools, theatres and discos, as well as workplaces.

In Brazil, Rio de Janeiro recently relaxed the use of masks. Updated data from Johns Hopkins University showed the global death toll of the virus has surpassed 6 million people, and Brazil is one of the hardest-hit nations, counting more than 650,000 confirmed deaths, the second most after the U.S.

Hong Kong’s leader said Sunday that the government would consider lifting strict social distancing measures as new COVID-19 infections in the city continued trending downward. Hong Kong is in the middle of a massive outbreak, recording over 1 million total cases in the city of 7.4 million.

But new infections in the city have been declining. In early March, Hong Kong reported more than 50,000 new infections in one day. On Saturday, it recorded 16,583 new cases.

With files from The Canadian Press and Associated Press

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