Doug Ford takes the masks off

Do as I say, not as I do. Based on the comments from Dr. Kieran Moore, Ontario’s chief medical officer of health, that now seems to be unofficial policy when it comes to COVID-19. After announcing Ontario’s mask mandate would effectively be lifted provincewide on March 21, Moore was asked if he would still wear one personally. “If I go to the Eaton Centre, I’ll wear my mask,” he said. “If I go to a big box store, I’ll put my mask on.”

Moore isn’t the only top doctor in Ontario who won’t be practicing what the Ford government has decided to preach. In an interview with CBC Radio’s Subway MorningDr. Peter Jüni, who heads Ontario’s COVID-19 science advisory table, said “it’s too early to tell” if the decision is the right one. “It’s not supported by science right now because it’s just too early. We would need at least one to two weeks more data to say, ‘OK, we’re stable’ and we just make it to the next step.”

The refusal of provincial premiers to err on the side of caution has been a familiar theme over the course of the last two years, and it’s already done irreparable damage to the lives and livelihoods of millions of Canadians. But now, with an election in the offing, Doug Ford has clearly decided to throw whatever caution he might have left to the wind and hope for the best — or at the very least, that the worst doesn’t come until after the votes are counted in June.

What makes Ontario’s decision even more reckless is the fact that nobody actually knows how bad the current situation might still be. In a previous interview, Moore suggested Ontario’s case counts could actually be as high as 20,000 a day. As Earnscliffe Strategies Principal Elly Alboim tweeted last week, “The lack of testing and reporting is tantamount to wilful suppression of information.” It also raises important questions about how the Ford government can lift the mask mandates when it doesn’t even have the data it would need to determine whether that’s prudent.

But prudence isn’t the name of the game here. Instead, it’s about gambling with other people’s chips and hoping the government can get lucky. It’s what Jason Kennedy did in Alberta with his “best summer ever,” a bet that crapped out in spectacular — and disastrous — fashion. It’s what Scott Moe is doing in Saskatchewan right now, where the inconvenience of daily COVID updates has been eliminated in the name of learning to live with the virus. Even John Horgan, whose province has the highest rate of vaccination west of the Maritimes, seems to be gambling a bit with his sudden decision to lift vaccine mandates on March 11. And it’s what Ford has decided to do in Ontario, with an election on the way and its popularity apparently more important than the public’s health.

If we were living in more rational times and were actually guided by the principles of “peace, order and good governance” that are enshrined in our Constitution, we would continue requiring masks in public places until the pandemic was well and truly behind us. They are the most minor of inconveniences and have helped protect us from both COVID and the more familiar ravages of cold and flu season. There is every reason in the world to make them a regular feature of our public lives going forward, one that improves health-care outcomes and helps create a sense of social solidarity.

That’s especially true in our schools, where the vaccination rates for children remain far below where they’d need to be to slow the spread of the virus. According to a massive new study just released by the National Institutes of Health, one that included more than 1.1 million students and 157,000 staff attending in-person school across nine US states, schools with mandatory masking policies had “approximately 72 per cent fewer cases of in-school transmission.” That alone would seem to be a pretty compelling reason to keep the masks on in Ontario’s classrooms until the end of the school year.

The one reason that won’t happen is because it’s now convenient, and effective, for conservative politicians and pundits to use masks as a wedge issue. “When we first introduced masks, we had maybe 150 cases a day in Ontario,” Dr. Nili Kaplan-Myrth, an Ottawa family doctor, told the CBC. “Now we’re talking about maybe 20,000 cases a day. It just doesn’t make sense.”

Even Dr. Moore, who has toed his government’s line on lifting public health measures, said as much in his Wednesday press conference. “We’re not finished with this pandemic. The risk of the virus continues.”

The problem we’re facing is that the political risks associated with not surrendering to the anti-mask (and anti-vaccine) community are apparently even greater for conservative politicians like Ford. “If you want to keep your mask on, keep it on,” he said. “If you want to take it off, take it off. But we have to move forward from this.”

Opinion: Doug Ford has clearly decided to throw whatever caution he might have left to the wind and hope for the best — or at the very least, that the worst doesn’t come until after the votes are counted in June, writes columnist @maxfawcett . #onpoli

Ontarians have no choice now but to go along for the ride — and hope it doesn’t lead the province back to where it was earlier this year. In the meantime, they might want to focus on how they can best move forward from the Ford government in June’s provincial election.

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