Ontario is set to drop most mask mandates — including in shops and restaurants, as well as all elementary and secondary schools — on March 21, the Star has learned.
The announcement, expected Wednesday, signals another move by the province to return to as close to normal as possible after two years of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Dr. Kieran Moore, Ontario’s chief medical officer of health, will announce the move at 11 a.m. at Queen’s Park, sources familiar with the change told the Star.
The change is possible because of current trends, including lower hospitalization and ICU rates as well as booster shot uptake. However, Moore indicated last week that masking in hospitals, nursing homes and transit would likely continue, and has advised those with other risk factors to keep wearing face covers.
Even though a new sub-variant has appeared and is more contagious than Omicron, it has not caused an increase in hospitalizations so far.
Moore has warned case loads are likely about 10 times higher than the limited PCR testing indicates, meaning that Tuesday’s 1,208 case count is actually closer to 12,000.
On Tuesday, 246 Ontario patients were in intensive care with COVID — more than 80 per cent of them admitted because of COVID, with the other 18 per cent admitted for other reasons and later testing positive. In total, 779 people were in hospital with COVID, although less than half were admitted for it.
Premier Doug Ford, who will be in Brantford on Wednesday morning to make a local health-care announcement, has said he wants the mask mandate gone “as soon as possible” and had suggested post-March break would be a good time.
Education Minister Stephen Lecce was asked about masking rules in schools at a curriculum announcement on Tuesday.
“We are very committed to keeping the school system as safe as possible,” he said at the Ontario Science Centre. “We are committed to gradually lifting measures with the full support of, and following the guidance of the chief medical officer of health” with the goal to “create more normal classrooms for these kids.”
The move is sure to cause controversy among some educators and experts, who have urged masking rules to remain in place — especially in elementary schools where younger students aren’t eligible for vaccines and rates for others have stagnated.
“Mask requirements are good for health and good for the economy. Let’s keep them until #COVID19 risk is much lower,” said Dr. Mustafa Hirji, Niagara’s medical health officer, in a tweet Tuesday night.
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It is also widely expected that schools will end cohorting — the grouping of students, used to limit COVID-19 transmission — and possibly daily active screening.
Moore has previously said “the worst is behind us, but there is an ongoing risk” but that “we’ll be reviewing masking in public on the second or third week of March and make decisions for all public spaces, including schools in that time frame.
“If and when we transition, it would be from … a mandate to mask to a recommendation to mask,” said Moore, adding it would be up to Ontario residents to make their own decisions.
Masks, covering the mouth and nose, have been mandatory in most indoor settings in much of Ontario since July 2020, four months after the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
Currently, they must be worn on public transit and in taxis and Ubers, and in stores, theatres, indoor sports venues, schools and workplaces.
Ontario has ordered more COVID-19 lockdowns than any other province or U.S. state and students have missed more in-person classes than anywhere on the continent and across most of Europe. However, it has recorded fewer deaths per capita than other provinces and bordering U.S. states, including Quebec, Manitoba, New York and Michigan.
“I’m going to continue being cautious, but we also have to move forward. We have to get back to normal. We have to get our lives back to normal as well,” Ford has said.
Students and parents have expressed mixed feelings about no masks in schools, calling such a move “completely reckless” to a “huge relief.”
Toronto high school student Evan Woo has told the Star’s Isabel Teotonio he is “done” with wearing a mask at school, calling them a barrier to learning because it can be “hard to hear someone speaking two desks down from where I’m sitting.”
Robert Benzie is the Star’s Queen’s Park bureau chief and a reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow him on Twitter: @robertbenzie
Rob Ferguson is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @robferguson1
Kristin Rushowy is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @krushowy
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