On the November 25 episode of The Final Word, Silas Le Blanc talks about the possibility of mask mandates returning on campus. As cases of the flu and COVID-19 increase in Ontario, other universities like the University of Waterloo, Wilfrid Laurier University and the University of Windsor have already made changes to their masking policies. Le Blanc speaks with Tim Sly, a professor at the School of Occupational and Public Health at Toronto Metropolitan University(TMU), on why TMU should be implementing mask mandates next semester.
On November 13, Ontario Premier Doug Ford urged Ontario residents to wear a mask in indoor settings, but stopped short of committing to any sort of renewal of mask mandates. TMU has made no changes to their masking policy, but is currently reviewing its policies in case provincial guidelines change.
In an email to CJRU, Tania Ulrich, a public relations and communications specialist, said, “We continue to encourage all community members to be fully vaccinated and remain up to date with current public health vaccination recommendations.” She encouraged students to wear masks when physical distancing is not an option and said that the university offers medical grade masks for all of its community members, as well as regular Covid-19 and flu vaccine pop-ups.
While many health experts are urging the province to reinstate mask mandates, Sly said people are more reluctant to enforce masking in fear of the potential backlash.
“Most public health people prefer not to go with mandates in general because a mandate means that you’re forcing or enforcing an activity or behaviour or restriction,” Sly said. “If you try and force somebody to do it, even though they might have done it voluntarily, now they’re gonna be a little bit resistant to it cause you’re forcing them.”
Sly says the goal of these mask mandates would be to stop the “tremendous amount of spread of all respiratory viruses” that he describes as the “the perfect storm that’s happening right now.”
Recently, the potentially life-threatening respiratory syncytial virus has taken up a lot of room in hospitals with smaller kids catching it. There have also been new more contagious Covid-19 variants—such as BQ.1 and BQ.1.1—spreading rapidly. As a result, hospitals are having to delay surgeries and diagnostics for cancers and cardiovascular diseases.
Sly attributes the increase in flu and Covid-19 cases to the loss of immunity that most people have had due to wearing masks and staying indoors during lockdowns.
“We’ve been wearing a mask by and large for two and a half years, and that’s prevented us picking up not just Covid, but all the other respiratory diseases,” Sly says. “So this year could well be one of the worst years in memory for common respiratory diseases.”
While Sly said enforcing masks could help curb the ongoing wave of cases, he says mask mandates involve just as much of a political discussion as they involve a public health one. He says there are still people who are against mask mandates in general and others who believe mask mandates should’ve never been removed. If masks were enforced, he says there is no way of knowing whether people would actually adhere to the enforcement.
“It’s psychologically buying in to the idea, the culture of the thing, rather than somebody saying ‘You must do it.’” he said, adding that some people—including students—don’t want to be the only ones wearing masks so they refrain from doing so until they see others following the public health guidelines.
Nevertheless, Sly said he strongly recommends wearing masks, as well as getting your booster shots for Covid-19 and the flu.
“It’s free. It’s available. It costs a couple minutes of your time and it protects you. So why wouldn’t you do that?” he said.