Ontario government now strongly recommends using non-medical face masks during COVID-19 pandemic

Physical distancing is 'golden rule'; limit on gatherings of no more than five people remains in place

Woman wearing a black non-medical face mask while shopping

A day after retail stores in Ontario began reopening, the Ontario government is now strongly recommending that people wear face coverings during the COVID-19 pandemic when physical distancing is a challenge, such as on public transit or in a small store.

Premier Doug Ford shared the advice from Ontario’s chief medical officer of health Dr. David Williams and other health experts during a media briefing at Queen’s Park on Wednesday (May 20), along with transportation minister Caroline Mulroney and health minister Christine Elliott.

“If you’re going out for necessities or if you are taking public transit, and you can’t keep two metres apart, we recommend that you wear a non-medical mask or a face covering,” Ford said. “As the chief medical officer has said, anything that covers your nose and mouth can help protect you and people around you.”

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As the province slowly reopens the economy, Ford said the government is watching the rate of spread of COVID-19 closely, especially for any sudden surges, and may reapply restrictions if needed.

“I want to be crystal clear that I’m fully prepared to take every action necessary if we see things going in the wrong direction,” Ford said. “We won’t hesitate to roll things back if necessary. I’m hopeful we won’t go there, but we need to be ready for all possible scenarios. That’s why it’s more important than ever that we stay vigilant.”

Ford also said the restriction on social gatherings of no more than five people remains in place.

“I know that everyone is asking ‘When can I see my family? When can we see our friends? When can social gatherings begin again?’,” Ford acknowledged. “The chief medical officer has been very clear and the guidance on social gathering remains the same. We can’t have more than five people from outside your household right now.”

Ford added that the best defence is for people to stay two metres apart from one another.

“I can understand if someone wants to drop off groceries, throw a ball around with a friend, or help an older parent with chores around the house,” Ford said. “I can’t sress this enough: to stop the spread of this deadly virus, the best line of defence is staying two metres apart. So, when in doubt, keep that golden rule in mind, because the virus can only spread as far as we allow it.”

To assist the public, the Ministry of Health has released specific recommendations on how to choose, wear, and care for appropriate face coverings used in public where physical distancing is not possible, along with additional safety measures for provincial transit agencies.

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For the public, the Ministry of Health is recommending the following:

  • Wear your face covering safely and snugly to cover your nose and mouth, without any gaps. Ensure your face covering is made of at least two layers of tightly woven material and can be cleaned multiple times without losing its shape.
  • Medical masks, such as surgical and N95 masks, should be reserved for use by health care workers, those providing direct care, first responders and individuals who are ill and must leave their home for essential reasons such as seeking medical care, picking up medication or groceries.
  • Face coverings should not be placed on or used by children under the age of two, anyone who has trouble breathing, and anyone who is unable to remove it without assistance.

“If you need a face covering, it is critically important people wear one that is appropriate for the situation,” said Minister Elliott. “Those taking transit or going out who can’t physically distance should wear non-medical grade cloth masks. We need to reserve all of the medical masks to protect our front-line health care workers, first responders, and people who are ill.”

In response to a reporter’s question as to why the government is only now recommending the use of face masks, Elliott said the situation is different now that the province is reopening.

“Previously it wasn’t necessary because we were asking people to stay home, stay inside, and only go outside if absolutely necessary to get food or medicine,” Elliott explained. “The situation has changed now with the opening of the economy. More people will be outdoors and outside and there may be situations where they can’t maintain the physical distancing, which continues to be the golden rule.”

“We recognize with public transit, for example, that might not be possible. So that is why Dr. Williams is recommending that face masks be worn now — to protect other people from you. You may be asymptomatic, but perhaps carrying COVID-19 and not have any idea of it. This is for the general population’s protection as we open the economy more and more.”

For provincial transit agencies, the Ministry of Health is also recommending the following measures be put in place:

  • Physical distancing of at least two metres by admitting fewer passengers and using physical markers between seats.
  • The use of face coverings, particularly when physical distancing is not feasible.
  • Ensuring the availability of alcohol-based hand rub upon entering and exiting the vehicle.
  • Implementing engineering controls like plexiglass windows between drivers and passengers.
  • Enhanced cleaning, particularly of high-touch surfaces.
  • Outside of public transit, the government says that workers and employers may also consider using face coverings as an additional public health measure, in addition to mandatory occupational health and safety measures.