Province lifting most mask restrictions on Monday, March 21

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ONTARIO—As of March 21, most of the remaining provincial restrictions aimed at containing the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic will be lifted.

Citing continued improvement in trends, the Ontario government announced that beginning Monday, March 21, wearing a mask will only be required for public transit, in long-term care, retirement homes and other health-care settings, congregate care settings, shelters, jails and congregate care and living settings, including homes for individuals with developmental disabilities. Federal masking requirements for returning travellers will also remain in place.

By April 27, all provincial masking requirements will be dropped.

Dr. Penny Sutcliffe, medical officer of health for Public Health Sudbury and Districts (PHSD), said she continues to strongly recommend the use of masks in indoor public settings to protect against COVID-19 infection.

“Despite recent promising trends in local COVID-19 metrics, the Omicron variant of COVID-19 is still circulating widely and the risk of infection and risk to our health-care system has not passed,” said Dr. Sutcliffe in her official statement referencing the lifting of provincial restrictions. “This is why I am strongly recommending that people continue to wear masks when in indoor crowded spaces, and especially if they have higher personal health risks or if their close circle includes those who are vulnerable to severe infection. The pandemic is not over and our area continues to have higher COVID rates compared with the province. With the provincial direction for the March 21 removal of masking mandates for most settings, along with the removal of screening and safety plan requirements for businesses and organizations, I am reminding people in our area that masking remains a simple and effective tool to protect yourself and those around you.”

Reaction from Island First Nations communities that have been particularly hard hit by the pandemic has been cautious.

“Our pandemic response team meets regularly and will be assessing this new announcement,” said Wiikwemkoong Ogimaa Duke Peltier. The next meeting of the team was scheduled for Tuesday, March 15. “We will be considering what the significant changes to the provincial mandates mean for our community and will decide what to recommend to council for their consideration.”

Whatever the pandemic response team decides, Ogimaa Peltier said that he has been speaking to parents and other caregivers of schoolchildren in the community and what he is hearing is that many feel there is no negative impact or issue in continuing to wear masks for the time being. “They know and have seen the importance of wearing masks in protecting vulnerable people in the community,” he said. “There has been no spread within the schools and we now have fitted N95 masks that are the best overall.”

Ogimaa Peltier noted that while the number of hospitalizations has gone down, COVID-19 has not disappeared. “There are more variants out there and we will be monitoring the impact over the next several weeks,” he said.

The Wiikwemkoong community has been heavily impacted by the pandemic, with over 730 cases being reported. “Of those cases, 94 percent have been in the last three or four weeks,” he said. Those case numbers equate to about 30 percent of the community’s residents.

As part of the provincial announcement, the imposition of new enforceable restrictions now lies solely in the hands of the province’s chief medical officer of health and are no longer available in the toolbox of local medical officers of health.

Similarly, local boards of education do not have the power to impose masking restrictions, as that power lies solely in the hands of the provincial Minister of Education,  Stephen Lecce.

This means that when returning to class following March break, students, teachers and staff at Rainbow District School Board (RDSB) schools will no longer be required to wear masks. RDSB will allow those wishing to continue to wear masks to continue to do so and will continue to make masks available to teachers, support staff and students.

“Personal choice to wear a mask or not wear a mask will be respected and supported,” reads a memo posted on the RDSB website. Students will still be required to screen for COVID-19 symptoms before leaving home to attend class.

Rainbow teachers’ unions have expressed dismay over the timing of the lifting of masking mandates, especially given that students and staff will be returning from March break where many will have come into contact with an increased number of people through travel outside of the region.

Eric Laberge, president of Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF) District 3 Rainbow, has said he believes it would have been prudent for the province to wait until at least the end of March or early April to drop mask mandates. “To remove mask mandates in schools following the March break does not really give people an opportunity to measure the impacts of all of these extra freedoms that have been gained over the past couple of weeks,” he said.

Mr. Laberge pointed out that it has not even been two weeks since the province loosened public health restrictions, leaving little time to assess the impact of that decision before embarking on further lifting of health measures.

Liana Holm, president of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) Rainbow local, representing Manitoulin elementary teachers, said there has a great deal of disruption in the education system already this year. She suggests that lifting restrictions so soon could cause even more.

“Why don’t we wait until the end of the year before we start lifting all of these requirements that might cause further disruption in the system?” said Ms. Holm, pointing out that ETFO believes the lifting of the mask mandate is premature.

“I understand there is pressure from different people or organizations to start lifting COVID-19 mandates,” she noted, “but just based on where we’ve been in the last two years in education, it’s a recipe for causing more disruption.” More disruption, she adds, is the last thing students need now.

Post-secondary institutions will continue to have masking requirements, however, as the Council of Ontario Universities has announced the decision to keep masks in place until at least the end of the current semester.

On Wednesday, March 9, the Ontario government also updated the isolation requirements for COVID-19, effective immediately.

“Isolation remains an important tool in preventing the spread of COVID-19 and full details are available at ontario.ca/exposed,” notes PHSD. “As previously required, you must isolate if you have symptoms of COVID-19 or have tested positive for the virus. Now, however, isolation is not required if you live with someone who has COVID-19 or has symptoms and you yourself have tested positive for COVID-19 in the last 90 days, or you are 18 years or older and have received a booster dose, or you are under 18 and you have been fully vaccinated. Individuals do not need to isolate if they have been exposed to someone from another household who has symptoms or is COVID-19 positive. If not isolating, you must still monitor for symptoms, wear a mask and not visit anyone at higher risk of illness or highest risk settings for 10 days since your exposure.”