Lifting Mask Mandates: Premature or Pre(tty) Good?

Image Courtesy of Zeynep Sümer

Maddie Hunt, Queen’s University
Edited by Sandrine Jacquot


Is the decision to lift mask mandates premature or a step in the right direction? I’d say a bit of both. Just a couple of weeks ago, this question reached the forefront of a significant but polarizing discussion that has placed the medical and social-political world in a stalemate. Both sides of the debate provide valid and strong points, making it difficult to assess whether the decision to lift mandates is the right call. 

A province-wide mandate was first set in place on October 3rd, 2020, establishing the requirement for individuals to wear a mask in all indoor settings accessed by the public. This provincial mandate was in accordance with other Canadian provinces and many jurisdictions worldwide, and has remained in effect until now. However, in the past couple of weeks, the Ontario government announced that these province-wide mandates would be lifted in most settings on March 21st, 2022. This elimination of masks will take place in restaurants, retail stores, recreation complexes, and schools, among other settings. In all other settings, such as hospitals, long-term care homes, jails, and on public transit, mask mandates will remain in place until April 27th, 2023. 

The shifting of lifestyle, both in October 2020 and now again in March 2022, has continued to create an onslaught of debate between those who feel that masks should be an individual decision, and those who believe masks are protecting the collective good. This, of course, is a very generalized explanation of the two sides in this debate. There are many valid arguments supporting both sides. For instance, concerns regarding negative impacts on mental health would be an argument in support of lifting mandates. 

Generation Z has now experienced their first global pandemic; an unprecedented event in that age’s lifetime. They have lived through a massive change in lifestyle; one that goes beyond the requirement of masks. There has also been a shift to complete online learning, continuous lockdowns and isolation periods, and much more. This has affected the mental health of millions, which is why Public Health authorities have recommended that school students, at the very least, be allowed to go mask-free to help improve poor student mental health, and return to a degree of social normalcy

In contrast, while some may  be through with the need for masks, there is still a health concern urging the need for masks. This health concern may have a much stronger argument, than the opposition which simply states the collective dislike toward wearing masks. There is a large population of immunocompromised individuals who are worried about the lifting of these mandates, given that they have been statistically proven to be more affected by the virus; with more serious illness and/or a higher mortality rate than the average person. Important to note, immunocompromised individuals are not the only ones who feel uncomfortable/have skepticism towards the lifting of these mandates. For instance, related to the schooling example noted above, the lifting of mandates has particularly been criticized in schools. The argument here is that students still need protection from the virus. In fact, Teachers’ Unions in the province have already voiced their opposition toward the provincial government’s announcement.

These are just two small ideas that prosper from the oppositional and affirmative sides of the mask debate. However, I think there is a more significant discussion between the two sides. Ontarians have experienced the lifting of mandates (ie. the re-opening of businesses, increased indoor capacity and gathering limits, etc.) only for them to be reimplemented once case numbers significantly increase again. Ontario’s vaccination rate is currently sitting at 80%. However, despite this high vaccination rate, there is no telling whether a new variant will appear to cause an increase in case numbers, and thus, trigger the reimplementation of protocols. The Toronto Star writes just that: “the province has been clear that, while mask mandates are being lifted now, it does not guarantee that their use will not be necessary in the future if the pandemic worsens”. As well, for those who are worried about the removal of mandates, it should also be stated that some institutions and private businesses are making the decision to maintain such mandates. For example, Universities in Ontario are opting to keep the mask mandate in place until the end of the semester. Some may think that it’s pessimistic to believe that pandemic-related protocols will return without a doubt. Others might say it’s just a realistic prediction, and the government has simply made a premature decision to remove mandates. If someone asked me, I’d say these predictions are realistic, and that the decision to remove mandates is premature. 

To be clear, my pessimism should not be misunderstood as disappointment in the decision to remove masks. In fact, it is just the opposite. While I do think the mandates will return, the benefit is that individuals are now free to act in accordance with their own comfort level in choosing whether or not to wear a mask; independent decision-making can return. Many people, myself included, will allow ourselves to return to some form of normalcy. While I feel for those who are immunocompromised and do not feel safe without a mask, whether they continue to wear one will be their own decision to make. We can finally feel like we are moving away from the event that has taken over our lives for three years now. We can finally feel some degree of normalcy; we can finally live again. 

While the world tries to return to some form of normalcy, excitement is quickly confounded with health-related fear, and thus, we return to yet another polarizing debate of whether or not the government has made the right decision.   


References:

Lu, Cindy. “Ontario Universities to Keep Mask Mandates in Place until End of Term.” Project
PROTECH, 17 Mar. 2022,

https://projectprotech.ca/front-page/ontario-universities-to-keep-mask-mandates-in-place-until-end-of-term/#:~:text=Decision%20to%20keep%20mandates%20in,end%20of%20the%20winter%20term.  

MacMillan, Carrie. “What Does It Mean to Be ‘Immunocompromised’?” Yale Medicine, Yale Medicine,
14 Feb. 2022,

https://www.yalemedicine.org/news/what-does-immunocompromised-mean#:~:text=We%20know%2C%20for%20example%2C%20that,rate%20than%20the%20average%20population.  

Mayer, Brandon, and Local Journalism Initiative Reporter. “Ontario to Do Away with Masks Mandate.”
Thestar.com, 18 Mar. 2022,
https://www.thestar.com/news/canada/2022/03/17/ontario-to-do-away-with-masks-mandate.html

Sümer, Zeynep. “Love in Times of Corona.” Unsplash.com,

https://unsplash.com/photos/8P4cMO5nwKc?utm_source=unsplash&utm_medium=referral&utm_content=creditShareLink.  Accessed 2022.