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He was dashing from aisle to aisle in my neighbourhood Safeway, clutching a bunch of bananas, two bags of chips, a jug of milk and a loaf of bread close to his chest.

And he was not wearing a mask.

Although it's always risky to interpret someone's thoughts by their actions, the urgency of his movements and the way he wouldn't make eye contact with anyone suggested he knew what he was doing and didn't care.

I watched as he went to pay for his groceries at the express lane. The cashier did not raise the issue of his maskless face. Nor did any of the other shoppers. He paid cash, took his items and left promptly.

Although reactions have been milder in Manitoba, 'mask rage' has now entered the lexicon of the pandemic.

JOHN WOODS / FREE PRESS FILES

Although reactions have been milder in Manitoba, 'mask rage' has now entered the lexicon of the pandemic.

When it was my turn, I pointed after the maskless shopper and asked the cashier how many people were ignoring the province's mandatory mask order. He rolled his eyes which were peeking out above the top of a navy-blue cloth mask and said, "Oh, yeah. Lots."

The cashier explained that although most shoppers have been compliant, there's an aggrieved minority that just won't get with the program.

Normally, he said, those people are stopped by a store employee at the door and told to please put on a mask. On this morning, however, the cashier had to do double duty, working the express lane and keeping an eye on the door. Our maskless shopper took advantage of that opening.

The cashier admitted that when he is able to stop people at the door, they are frequently unhappy. "I stopped a guy yesterday and boy, was he angry," the young man said.

It's hardly surprising that some people ignore pandemic basics like hand washing and masks. Some of us are too lazy, too silly and ‐ let's call it what it really is ‐ too stupid to grasp the simple, elegant effectiveness of non–medical masks.

This grocery store clerk's experience explains, to some degree, why we haven't seen much improvement since public health officials put Winnipeg in an orange-level threat assessment two weeks ago. In fact, with 67 new cases reported Thursday — 57 of which are in the Winnipeg health region — there's a strong case to be made that we're losing ground.

Back to our maskless shopper. It's hardly surprising that some people ignore pandemic basics like hand washing and masks. Some of us are too lazy, too silly and — let's call it what it really is — too stupid to grasp the simple, elegant effectiveness of non-medical masks.

Masks are not a cure. But they are one of the best ways we can protect each other and continue to enjoy the social and economic freedoms we regained since the spring lockdown. Unfortunately, all it takes is a few weak and lazy folks to ruin things for everyone.

And that means that human nature — and not the virus itself — is our biggest COVID-19 challenge.

A cashier explained that although most shoppers have been compliant, there's an aggrieved minority that just won't get with the program and wear a mask.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / FREE PRESS FILES

A cashier explained that although most shoppers have been compliant, there's an aggrieved minority that just won't get with the program and wear a mask.

It should be noted that despite sound rationale, mandatory mask orders are imperfect pandemic control tools, largely because so little is done to enforce them. In short, when the orders are issued, they are not accompanied with an effective enforcement strategy.

There are penalties for not wearing a mask in an indoor public space. The City of Winnipeg, for example, can levy a $100 fine if transit riders refuse to wear a mask. However, service cannot be refused if someone is maskless, and there has been no active enforcement to date.

That means enforcement is left in the hands of cashiers, sales associates, public servants in places like libraries and schools, private security personnel and, in the case of Winnipeg Transit, bus drivers. What these people all have in common is that they are all risking their health to continue providing essential services during the pandemic.

We've seen examples in the United States of citizens lustily expressing their perceived right to go maskless and, in some instances, killing or maiming the people who tried to get them to mask up. Although reactions have been milder in Manitoba, 'mask rage' has now entered the lexicon of the pandemic.

It's hard to ask Manitoba public health officials to provide resources for things such as mask enforcement when they have so many other issues to address. Top of that list is the inexplicable failure of the Tory government to ramp up COVID-19 testing capacity.

It should be noted that despite sound rationale, mandatory mask orders are imperfect pandemic control tools, largely because so little is done to enforce them. In short, when the orders are issued, they are not accompanied with an effective enforcement strategy.

Premier Brian Pallister did promise two new drive-thru testing sites will open next week but the fact that it took nearly a month to significantly expand capacity has left many Winnipeggers concerned.

On the other hand, non-medical masks could be the single most powerful strategy in controlling the spread of the virus. To maximize effectiveness, mask orders must be accompanied by hand hygiene and social distancing. But, we simply cannot live with the virus without masks.

We are now two weeks into the code-orange threat assessment. If we are adhering to the rules as part of this assessment, then we should now start to see a noticeable reduction in the number of new cases being reported each day, based on Prairie Mountain health region's one-month experience with code orange.

If we don't see an improvement — and we haven't so far — it should be noted that code orange allows for more severe social and economic restrictions. And if we're forced to lock down once again, it will leave many of us wondering why we didn't just wear the bloody masks when we had the chance.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Dan Lett

Dan Lett
Columnist

Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.

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