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Mandatory mask policies raise accessibility concerns for vulnerable populations

Experts and advocates worry that mask mandates could prevent low-income households from accessing essentials such as groceries

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As several Canadian jurisdictions move to make masks mandatory in some public settings, experts and advocates say these orders will only work if they’re backed up by efforts to provide access and education to vulnerable populations.

Next week, the city will make face coverings mandatory in public indoor spaces such as stores and businesses.

Toronto’s medical officer of health, Eileen de Villa, said Thursday that the city had filed an application to levy fines in connection with the mask bylaw, but could give no details on what a possible penalty could be.

“The focus is on education and encouraging people to adopt the right behaviours rather than enforcement,” she said.

The nearby municipalities of Mississauga and Brampton have announced their intentions to enact similar policies. In Guelph, about 100 kilometres west of Toronto, customers and employees are required to have their faces covered inside commercial establishments.

Some of these statutes include exceptions for young children and people who can’t wear masks because of health conditions, such as respiratory issues, cognitive disabilities and hearing impairments.

Several policy makers and advocates say the goal of mask mandates isn’t to punish people for non-compliance, but rather, to set a standard that will encourage public participation.

However, some say these rules will disproportionately penalize marginalized populations–including people living on low incomes, people with disabilities and racialized people–who lack access to masks or are more likely to be targeted by enforcement.

Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease physician and scientist with Toronto General Hospital, said wearing a mask in situations when physical distancing isn’t possible can reduce one’s risk of transmitting the novel coronavirus to other people, but doesn’t offer much personal protection.

In communities with high rates of COVID-19, it’s good practice to wear a mask in high-traffic, indoor spaces, he said.

But it’s hard to predict how making masks mandatory will impact people who lack the resources to buy or make them, Bogoch said.

“At the end of the day, if you’re going to mandate (masks), they really should be accessible, so that we don’t prevent people from interacting with the world around them just because they don’t have the money or the capability to buy or create a mask.”

Deniqua Leila Edwards, a staff lawyer with Canada Without Poverty, said mask mandates could prevent people living on low incomes from accessing essential services, such as grocery stores and pharmacies.

“There should not be a premium on something that is fundamental to both individual and public health,” Edwards said.

A growing number of Canadians face financial insecurity because of the economic impacts of COVID-19, Edwards said. Masks may be an extra expense that many can’t afford, she said.

Laverne Jacobs, associate dean of research and graduate studies at Windsor Law, said many people with disabilities fear that they’ll be asked to share their health history with a stranger every time they enter a store in order to “prove” they fall into an exempted category.

Jacobs, who is the founding director of the Law, Disability and Social Change Project, noted that mask mandates are most likely to harm the communities that have already been hardest hit by COVID-19.

“I think it’s important from a public health perspective that everyone is protected,” she said. “I just wish that there were a more community-based way of making sure everyone is properly served.”

 

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