Masks are back.
B.C.’s announcement Tuesday of a provincewide mask mandate for all indoor public spaces, including schools, surprised politicians, didn’t faze industry and pleased infectious disease experts.
“This temporary order will be reassessed as the B.C. vaccine card requirement is fully implemented in certain social and recreational settings as we announced yesterday,” B.C. provincial heath officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said.
The mask requirement begins today while the requirement to show a vaccine card to enter non-essential events and venues begins Sept. 13.
“We need to continue to do those things that keep us safe,” Henry said. “And one of those is wearing masks in these indoor settings as rates of transmission in our communities have creeped upward.”
The province announced 1,711 new cases of COVID-19 over the weekend and 16 deaths, including one in Island Health.
“This measure is needed to ensure that these indoor settings are as safe as they can be for all of us as we head into the fall and we spend more time … indoors,” Henry said.
B.C. Green Leader Sonia Furstenau said the re-instated mask mandate is welcome, but the one-day notice is “jarring and leaves people and businesses to scramble.”
“British Columbians have had to deal with uncertainty, anxiety, and frustration for a year and a half now,” said Furstenau. The B.C. government should have provided a plan similar to the Restart 2.0 plan that laid out steps and criteria, she said.
The mask mandate applies to all British Columbians 12 years and older in indoor public settings from coffee shops and grocery stores to public transit, taxis and B.C. Ferries.
“This is to address those situations where we are in an indoor setting with people who may not yet have been vaccinated,” Henry said.
Last week, a COVID-19 modelling group co-founded by B.C. researcher Daniel Coombs warned the steep trajectory of new Delta variant cases — doubling every seven to 10 days — could overwhelm B.C. hospitals if no measures were taken.
Coombs said the mask mandate and vaccine card complement each other and could encourage “a few hundred thousand” more people to be vaccinated and possibly prevent a spike of cases.
B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix said 776,000 people who are eligible for COVID-19 vaccines have not been immunized. Another 300,000-plus children age 11 and younger cannot be immunized until a vaccine is approved.
“We still have enough people unvaccinated that we could have a pretty big epidemic among unvaccinated people and that would be really bad,” said Coombs. And the vaccine as great as it is, does not offer 100 per cent protection.
Seventy-five per cent of the B.C.’s eligible population is fully vaccinated. If that were the case a year ago the COVID-19 virus of 2020 “would have essentially just died out,” said Coombs. Now at least 90 per cent of all British Columbians— including children — need to be vaccinated.
“I think it’s really crucial to understand this virus is not going to be eradicated,” said Coombs. “We are going to live with this virus indefinitely.”
Infectious-disease specialist Dr. Isaac Bogoch said amid rising case counts, the vaccine passport bridged by a mask mandate is a smart move. “This is one way that you can help keep businesses open and keep the economy running. We know it’s not perfect, but it will provide incremental levels of safety and protection in indoor venues. There’s no reason to lock down ever again if this is a method that you can take.”
Bogoch said his personal view — unlike B.C.’s decision to make no exceptions — would be to provide some mechanism, such as rapid testing, for people who can’t get vaccinated.
B.C. business leaders support the new orders.
Business Council of B.C. president Greg D’Avignon said businesses have COVID-19 safety and communicable disease prevention plans and many indoor businesses maintained mask requirements. “It will mean communications and consistent followup for businesses in the short term.”
Bruce Williams, president of the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce, said the mask mandate combined with the B.C. vaccine card just “makes sense.”
“Immunization really is the way out of this and there’s little tolerance for people who don’t have legitimate medical reasons for not getting vaccinated,” said Williams. “The same for the temporary return of the mask mandate. … It makes sense to require masks in situations where we don’t know the vaccination status of others.”
The chamber is working with the government on how vaccine passports and mask mandates are enforced, said Williams. “Dealing with aggressively opinionated anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers should not be part of the job description [of front-line staff].”
Where masks are required
• The mask mandate applies to all British Columbians 12 years and older in indoor public settings including shopping centres, coffee shops, retail and grocery stores, liquor stores, and drug stores.
• Masks will also be required in city halls, libraries, community and recreation centres, restaurants, pubs and bars — unless you are seated at a table and distanced — while in public transit, taxis or ride-sharing vehicles, and in all public areas of B.C. Ferries.
• Office buildings where services to the public are provided, non-profit organizations, and common areas of sport and fitness centres, except when working out, also fall under the masking mandate.