TORONTO -- The Ontario government now recommends that people use a face covering or cloth mask to stop the spread of COVID-19 when physical distancing is not possible.

The news comes as Ontario entered stage one of its plan to restart the provincial economy on Tuesday.

“As we start to reopen we know that more people are taking public transit, more people are going to stores, more people are going outside,” Premier Doug Ford said at a news conference on Wednesday.

Ford made the announcement while underscoring that physical distancing and staying at home if you are feeling sick continue to be the best ways to beat the virus, but acknowledges that those options might not always be possible.

“A face covering is better than none at all,” Ford said.

Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Williams has recommended the use of masks in the past when other public health measures are unavailable. However, this marks the clearest messaging from the government on the issue of face coverings so far.

The government says that the recommendation is being made now as more and more residents venture outside and as the number of new cases of COVID-19 in the province appears to have stabilized.

"Dr. Williams has always said that wearing a mask doesn’t necessarily protect you from COVID-19, but it will protect others from you and so previously it wasn’t necessary because we were asking people to stay home, stay inside, only go outside if absolutely necessary to get food or get medicine," Deputy Premier and Health Minister Christine Elliott said.

"The situation has changed now with the reopening of the economy and more people will be outdoors and there may be situations where they can’t maintain the physical distancing, which continues to be the golden rule.”

Provincial health officials confirmed 390 new cases of the novel coronavirus on Wednesday morning, bringing the total number of cases in Ontario to 23,774, including 1,962 deaths and 18,190 recoveries.  

With the announcement, the province laid out a number of best practices for using a mask or face covering. These include making sure that your mask fits “snugly” to cover your nose and mouth and only using face coverings made of at least two layers of tightly woven material.

Face coverings should not be used by children under the age of two, by anyone who has trouble breathing or by those cannot remove the mask themselves, the government said. 

The government also made clear that this recommendation does not encourage the use of medical-grade masks by residents who are not frontline workers.

"Please do not use medical masks. These should be reserved for health-care workers, those providing direct care and first responders. Instead, you should use a cloth mask," Elliott said.

Earlier in the day, Canada's chief public health officer also officially recommended that Canadians wear non-medical face masks when maintaining a two-metre distance is not possible.

The City of Toronto echoed the recommendations made by the provincial and federal governments and says it is working to secure over 100,000 reusable cloth masks to provide to city employees.

"I am asking all employers to step forward and similarly advise their employees about the wearing of face coverings and also asking those same employers to supply non-medical masks to employees," Mayor John Tory said in a news release.

Specific guidance for transit 

The government’s recommendation pays special attention to transit agencies that continue to operate in the face of COVID-19.

Minister of Transportation Caroline Mulroney was on hand for Wednesday’s announcement and issued several directives for both transit employees and passengers. These include:

• 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.

"Ontario's public transit systems are critical to supporting the economy and getting people where they need to go as the province begins to reopen," Mulroney said in a news release.

"The health and well-being of all transit workers and passengers is a top priority for our government and we will be working with transit agencies to ensure that public transit can continue to operate safely."