Wearing masks at all indoor public places within the jurisdiction of the Eastern Ontario Health Unit (EOHU) became mandatory on July 7. Looking around at local businesses that day, customers and employees alike were all complying, even though employees are not always required to wear masks.
Social media and other focal points of internet protest have been full of complaints, rage, conspiracy theories, and other falsehoods about mandatory masks. Comparing mandatory masks to communism or saying masks are one step away from making women don burqas worn by conservative Muslim women are some of the comments posted on The Review’s Facebook page.
Governments have been making various health and safety practices mandatory for decades. In 2020, we get into our vehicles and buckling the seatbelt is as much a part of the routine as closing the door and turning the key in the ignition. Seatbelts became mandatory in Ontario on January 1, 1976. A look through the pages of The Review from December 1975 and January and February 1976 showed no publicly voiced opposition, at least locally, to mandatory seatbelts. There were no cries of communism or letters about the theft of civil liberties. Of course, there was no Facebook nor were there other online outlets for complaining in the mid-1970s. If someone disliked a law, they either wrote a letter to the editor or complained about it privately among family and friends.
The reason seatbelts became mandatory in Ontario was that studies had proven there was a benefit to wearing them. A November 26, 1975 story stated that they reduced serious injuries or fatalities from vehicle collisions by 40 to 50 per cent. The reason the EOHU has made masks mandatory is because of proof that they reduce the transmission of the coronavirus by reducing the respiratory particles which are produced by people when they talk, sing laugh, cough or sneeze, etc.
EOHU Medical Officer of Health Dr. Paul Roumeliotis has stated he prefers education over enforcement for masks, and the same thing was done with seatbelts in 1976. In 1975-76, authorities took an education and awareness approach with seatbelts. Police officers only issued warnings for non-compliance during the first month, and even Ontario Minister of Transportation James Snow said there would be no aggressive enforcement in the beginning. There were advertisements in The Review from the Ontario government and the Canada Safety Council promoting seatbelt use, and highlighting the advantages of their use. On Highway 417, signs went up telling drivers and passengers entering from Québec to wear seatbelts in Ontario. Québec followed with a mandatory seatbelt law on August 15, 1976.
Public health authorities today are also advertising the exemptions to mask wearing, which are somewhat similar to the exemptions allowed for seatbelt use 45 years ago based on medical conditions or age. In 1976, people had to carry a letter from their doctor proving they were exempt from wearing a seatbelt. Roumeliotis has said that individuals will have to responsible for justifying their exemptions and that enforcement by police, by-law officers, or public health inspectors will only be used if necessary.
It is hoped that coronavirus and COVID-19 will go away someday due to the discovery of a vaccine or other reliable treatment. Mandatory masks are a temporary measure for a public health emergency that will not last forever. The need for highway safety is unlikely to disappear.