Mask and ye shall receive
Some businesses making the choice to mandate face coverings, wish province would do the same
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In the face of rising rates of COVID-19, flu and respiratory virus infections, the Manitoba government has steadfastly refused to reinstate the mask mandate it ended last March, but there are still places only masked people are allowed.
Holdout businesses that continue to require staff and customers to cover up say their decision is not a matter of politics, but of personal and public safety.
“I think masks have been completely easy to embrace,” said Dave Hanson, owner of Sage Garden Greenhouses. “We are not making a political statement with this, we are making a personal health choice.”
Hanson, 49, has operated greenhouses at 3410 St. Mary’s Rd. with his wife Ev Yauk since 2000. Like all business owners, they have made difficult decisions over the years, but maintaining a mask mandate wasn’t one of them.
“There was no question. We felt it has been very helpful in building confidence in our staff in interacting with the public throughout the pandemic,” he said.
“Of course, there were those who were strongly against the idea of there ever being a mask mandate… but, I will say, for the most part, the feedback we’ve received has been very positive.”
The policy at Sage Garden has turned away some customers, but attracted others.
“As a customer, a citizen and as a country right now, masking is a pretty darn good idea,” said Robin Kelly as he shopped at Sage Garden Friday.
Kelly, who is in his mid-70s, knows people who have become severely sick from COVID-19 and said he fears he might catch it himself.
“Any time I’m around people I don’t know, I wear a mask,” he said. “You never know what you’re going to run into.”
Hanson said maintaining the mask policy has become difficult in recent months because it’s seen as a thing of the past and politicians are reluctant to reinstate a mandate, Hanson said.
Speaking with the Free Press Friday, the owners of Prairie Sky, Winnipeg Record and Tape and Whodunit Books all said they believe maintaining indoor masking policies protects customers and staff alike. All three provide masks for their customers because the benefits are worth the expense.
“We would like to keep everybody happy, but we would like to keep everybody safe more,” said Aynsley Anderson, owner of Prairie Sky.
The West End Cultural Centre and Diamond Athletic Medical Supplies have also kept a mask mandate.
Last week, Manitoba recorded its third consecutive week on the “severe” end of the COVID-19 Hazard Index, which combines current infections, hospitalization and wastewater estimates as well as mortality rates.
Provincial influenza and respiratory virus rates are surging — and worse still — the Children’s Hospital emergency department reached a record number of visits on the weekend of Nov. 12 and 13. Health administrators have asked parents to take their sick children to a walk-in clinic or pediatrician to reduce the strain.
Provinces and territories are facing similar circumstances, but none has announced its intention to reinstate mask mandates.
Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, continues to encourage people to wear masks indoors, but has publicly said the decision to enforce mandates is up to provincial governments.
Manitoba, while also encouraging people to mask indoors, has no plan to require masks.
“We’re certainly not looking at mandating it, and really are approaching it on the levels of protection people can have,” said Dr. Brent Roussin, the province’s chief public health officer, in a recent interview. “Our messaging regarding masks hasn’t really changed… We’ve always said it’s certainly an option for people. If you feel you’re higher risk or just feel comfortable wearing a mask, that’s certainly an option for you.”
Hanson is disappointed.
“People are not going out of their way to voluntarily mask… It always requires leadership,” he said. “I do not think this needs to be a big issue. It’s become symbolic of something (political.)”
Manitoba is suffering from a “collective action problem,” a political term that describes a scenario in which there is conflict between the individual interest and the group interest, said Bryan Peeler, an assistant professor of political studies at the University of Manitoba.
By not mandating masks, the Progressive Conservative government avoids alienating a portion of the voter base who may disagree, but doing nothing is ignoring public health organizations that are pleading for intervention.
“It’s sort of like everyone is pretending it’s over,” Peeler said.
Educating individuals and allowing them to choose for themselves is a possible solution, but the province has fallen short because it provides incomplete information, he said.
In March, the Tories stopped providing daily COVID-19 data. They ended the online dashboard that included the number of cases, deaths, hospitalizations and ICU admissions.
“The province isn’t even collecting data anymore because they don’t want to know what the answer is. They are afraid, presumably, things might be in such a state they have to bring back mandates, which they don’t want to do.
“You can’t really escape the politics of this, but then, there’s another sense where because its based on scientific evidence, it shouldn’t really be political… If Liberal or NDP governments were in power, would it be different? Maybe, but I don’t think so.”