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To mask or not to mask? Questions still abound about recommendations

Controversy around B.C.’s top doctor being photographed without a face covering at a B.C. Lions Game this past week highlights the ongoing questions around current mask recommendations. Henry was pictured at the home opener at B.C.
Face coverings are not required in outdoor public spaces, but many people still wear opt to wear them. ADRIAN LAM, TIMES COLONIST

Controversy around B.C.’s top doctor being photographed without a face covering at a B.C. Lions Game this past week highlights the ongoing questions around current mask recommendations.

Henry was pictured at the home opener at B.C. Place on Thursday, posing for the odd photograph and selfie without a mask on.

Her actions were criticized on social media, with some questioning why she wasn’t wearing a mask given the prevalence of the more transmissible Delta variant that is fuelling the province’s fourth wave.

On Friday, Henry said she was with a small group of vaccinated people in a private box and wore her mask when walking around the stadium, but otherwise, “there was no need for us to wear a mask in that large open area.”

B.C. Place did a good job limiting and spacing people, she said. The stadium was at half capacity with the retractable roof open, and a vaccination clinic was held outside.

Henry said she wears a mask in indoor public settings, especially in more crowded spaces.

“But, you know, we’ve said all along that masks have a particular role in a particular setting,” she said. “So if I’m in an outdoor setting keeping physical distance from people, that’s when the mask is not necessary.”

B.C.’s mask mandate, which required masks be worn in indoor public spaces, became a recommendation on July 1, when the province entered the third phase of its Restart 2.0 plan.

Island Health medical health officer Mike Benusic, who is fully vaccinated, said he doesn’t wear a mask outside “because outdoor transmission of COVID is very rare.” Indoors, he does whatever is recommended by the particular business.

“I know that businesses are all moving at their own pace and so my local grocery store has a sign recommending people wear a mask and so I wear a mask,” he said. “And that’s what I’m asking everyone to do — be patient with one another and if someone is recommending a mask when you come into their business, I recommend you to follow what the business would like you to do.”

Nick MacMillan, manager of the Walk in Comfort shoe store on Fort Street, said since the mandate has dropped to a recommendation, “we no longer get aggressive customers.”

“We used to have people scream at staff because they didn’t like the rules,” MacMillan said. The store prefers people continue to mask up, but about 20 per cent don’t, he said.

Amy Harstad, who was wearing a mask while shopping in the store, said she decides whether to wear one based on what others are doing.

“If I see a lot of people wearing masks, I will follow their lead and put mine on as well,” Harstad said. “I also do so because I hate the dirty looks some of them give you if you are unmasked.”

At Russell Books, Peggy Hunter was browsing without a mask. She said she decides whether to wear a mask based on where she is.

“I will still wear a mask in a more crowded environment, like a grocery store,” said Hunter, an instructor at Camosun College. “Here, people are well spaced out — but I would put one on if asked.”

Hunter said she and her husband caught COVID-19 in March before they were vaccinated.

Frederick Grouzet, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Victoria, said mask wearing is a way for some people to show caring and solidarity.

“Some wear masks to show that they are mindful of others. Getting a vaccine isn’t visible, but by wearing a mask, they can show their mutual respect to others,” Grouzet said.

The relaxation of restrictions also de-escalates tensions for those who are resistant to wearing masks because they dislike being told what to do, he said.

A B.C. COVID-19 modelling group produced a report this week that predicting new cases will overwhelm the health care system unless something is done to curb transmission. The group recommends masks be required again, especially as unvaccinated students younger than 12 return to school.

Henry said use of masks becomes more important when there are high transmission rates in the community — as in the Interior Health region, which has seen a spike in cases and where masks are once again required indoors.

“I do encourage people to wear masks in indoor public settings when they’re around people that they don’t know, particularly where we don’t know the immunization status,” she said. “In those settings, it becomes important.”

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