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COVID-19: Montreal Councillor proposes mandatory face masks on public transit

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Face masks on public transit – Montreal Councillor Marvin Rotrand wants to make it mandatory for public transit users to wear a face mask “at least for the foreseeable future”. He says compulsory face coverings are necessary to bolster confidence in public transportation in the wake of COVID-19. The Snowdon district councilor says that the public transit system is on the brink of collapse and there will have to be an infusion of cash to keep it afloat until ridership returns to near normal levels. This is coming at a time when Quebec is preparing to gradually lift restrictions on public gatherings. As commuters begin to return to work and school in the next few weeks the question on everyone’s mind is, “What will the “new normal” be?” 

Montreal Councillor Marvin Rotrand says face masks on public transit should be mandatory

“I think the federal government has a role to play in all this,” Rotrand says. The veteran city councilor – who last week asked for urgent federal funding to stabilize transit – notes that since April 20th Canada has obliged air travelers to wear masks. He wonders if public transit as we know it is even going to survive. “People have gotten used to working at home – a lot of people have discovered how easy it is to shop online,” he says. These facts in and of themselves are likely to depress ridership. Then there is the “fear factor”. He believes that public transportation won’t get rolling again without a mandatory law. “Many people are afraid of being in a confined space” {without PPE}. He notes that cities as diverse as Mexico City,  Singapore, San Francisco, Shanghai, Buenos Aires, Taipei, Tel Aviv, Honolulu, and Istanbul have made wearing a mask compulsory in order to boost ridership.

Wearing masks and face coverings in public has become more common during the pandemic. Some states and cities in other jurisdictions have mandates for face masks on public transit. However, Canada hasn’t followed suit. Theresa Tam, Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer has recommended voluntary wearing of non-medical face masks. Dr. Tam suggests wearing a face mask to help cut down the spread of the novel coronavirus when you are in situations where you can’t always maintain proper physical distance from others. The aim is to prevent transmission by people who are unknowingly infected with the virus. She says this would help in scenarios such as shopping in the grocery store or riding public transit.

However, there is a world of difference between voluntary and compulsory measures. Mayor Valérie Plante recently said that face masks will become “an indispensable summer accessory” under the new regional public health guidelines. Stressing that wearing a mask in public won’t be mandatory and citizens will not be stopped by the police or given a ticket for not wearing one she said, “Whether you’re going for a walk or a bike ride, or you’re going to the grocery (store) or to the pharmacy or taking public transport, I definitely invite you to wear a face covering as one of the ways to protect yourself and also protect others.” Highlighting the fact that Montreal has been hit hard by the virus, she said that because the city is so densely populated, it might be difficult to stay two metres away from others. Plante’s recommendation to wear a mask all summer is enough to make many a free spirit balk even without the spectre of a law. The science on COVID-19 is evolving and epidemiologists don’t agree on best practices. Some countries have sustained a devastating loss of human life while others have had comparatively few deaths. Different jurisdictions have deployed different strategies to stem the transmission of the virus.

Canada’s public health authorities have adopted a broad approach favouring social distancing and, inexplicably, self-isolation when there is no requirement for quarantine. Over the last 6 weeks there have been wildly different projections about the expected number of cases and fatalities. 

However, the data now shows that 79% of COVID-19 deaths in Canada have occurred in chronic care facilities and senior residences suggesting that a more targeted approach is necessary. It is doubtful that mandatory measures such as wearing a face mask in public would meet the test of civil liberties in the current context. It is also highly debatable whether people would accept this additional barrier to communication and the enjoyment of their walks and bike rides when parks and pools may stay closed for several months and vacation becomes moot. A recent opinion poll conducted by Leger and the Association for Canadian Studies shows that Canadians are split over whether a vaccine for COVID-19 should be mandatory – presuming one becomes available – an indication that lots of people aren’t on board with hyper-vigilance, especially young adults.

Rotrand is also calling for a national safety standard that could be proposed to the provinces and transport agencies to boost ridership on buses and the metro. This new framework would include the obligatory use of masks, a federal fund to enable transit authorities to distribute masks for free to riders, the provision of hand sanitizing products, and a uniform cleaning standard outlining how often and by what means transit vehicles are cleaned.

The Société de transport de Montréal (STM) says it is working with the City of Montreal to install 224 hand-sanitizing stations in the Métro. The touchless dispensers will be distributed at each of the system’s 126 entrance buildings, as well as at 50 public-access points. The public transport agency says the dispensers will be cleaned daily and refilled regularly but, cautions, “This is an additional preventive measure that does not replace existing public health rules, including physical distancing, coughing into the elbow and frequent hand washing.” People who may have been infected with COVID-19 are urged to stay away from the public transit system. 

By: Deborah Rankin – info@mtltimes.ca

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