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Ontario lifts mask mandates in most public spaces including schools, retail settings

Ontario residents were able to shop, see a movie, and take in a hockey game without wearing a mask for the first time in about a year-and-a-half as the province lifted face-covering mandates for most public spaces Monday.

Students in public schools were also able to attend class without wearing a mask, though many chose to keep wearing them.

Branav Jalan said his six-year-old daughter, who has two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine, will be wearing a mask at her school in Toronto for now.

"I have seen (the) majority of the people (at school) are still wearing masks, so I think that that's a good step," he said. "It's good to be back after spring break, so let's hope that everything continues in a good sense."

Sudhir Kesarkar said his 10-year-old son will be wearing a mask for a little while longer, but once the boy receives his second vaccine dose in a few weeks, Kesarkar will feel "absolute comfort" sending him to school without a mask.

"I'm just happy that this pandemic is ending and we can live our life freely," he said.

Several school boards had wanted more time to keep mask mandates, but those requests were denied by Ontario's chief medical officer of health. The Hamilton-Wentworth school board has said it still plans to keep a mask requirement until April 1.

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said the board was clearly listening to advice from some public health experts and a coalition of children's hospitals urging the government to keep masks mandatory in schools for a few more weeks.

"That's what I think that they were basing their decision on, and I have some respect for that," she said.

Liberal House Leader John Fraser said the government has not articulated why it couldn't keep masks mandatory in schools for a bit longer, as Nova Scotia has.

"(Boards) should be able to work with a government to do what's needed in their local community," he said. "We're talking two weeks, we're not talking a new curriculum ... The government's inflexible on this and I don't understand why."

Select settings such as public transit, health-care facilities, long-term care homes and congregate care settings will keep mask mandates until the end of April, but masks are no longer required in most other public spaces, including restaurants, bars, gyms, retail, cinemas, theatres, sports venues, and meeting and event spaces.

Monday marked "an important milestone" in the fight against COVID-19, Premier Doug Ford wrote on Twitter.

"Ontario's cautious approach throughout the pandemic has allowed us to save countless lives as we emerge with one of the lowest fatality rates in North America," he said later Monday in remarks to a Canadian American Business Council roundtable in Washington, D.C.

"From the outset of the pandemic we learned that you can't have a healthy economy without healthy people."

Vaughan, Ont., residents Raymond Pirnasar and Chessa Pirnasar stepped into a mall on Monday without wearing masks.

"(We're) going in to the mall to shop for the first time being able to breathe. That's my prerogative," Chessa Pirnasar said, while stressing that if people don't feel comfortable taking off their masks, then she respects their choice.

"Both of us have had three doses, so I think we feel safe."

Robert Burns, who was wearing a medical mask on his way to a mall in Toronto, said he feels "indifferent" about mask mandates being lifted, but hopes that people don't act "recklessly."

"Personally, I will continue to wear my mask. I think it's safer," he said.

Burns said he doesn't have a set timeframe for when he'll stop wearing a mask while he's out and about. "I have a grandchild who has not been vaccinated because she's too young, so I want to protect her," he added.

Individual businesses can keep mask mandates or a proof-of-vaccination system for customers, the latter of which was dropped provincewide March 1.

Hot Docs Cinema in Toronto said it would keep masks mandatory until at least April 1 to assess the COVID-19 situation and to honour tickets that were purchased before the mandate lifted.

Jodi Wheeler, owner of Blue Crow Gallery in Toronto, said her art gallery will keep a mask requirement in part because she has such a small staff.

"If we get sick we can't really continue to operate," she said. "We have a lot of customers, I think, that were happy to hear that we were considering keeping it in place."

Provincial government politicians and top health officials say public health indicators have improved enough to remove mask rules, which have also been lifted in other jurisdictions across Canada and around the world, though many epidemiologists and infectious diseases physicians have said the mandates should have stayed - particularly in schools - for a few weeks longer.

Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore has said making masks optional does not signal that COVID-19 has disappeared or that the pandemic is over, but it means that Ontario has come to place where it can now manage the virus.

The number of people in hospitals with COVID-19 has been steadily falling since the peak of the Omicron variant wave in January, but wastewater surveillance suggests COVID-19 activity has recently started to increase again.

Ontario reported 1,217 new cases Monday, but Moore has said the actual number is likely 10 times higher than the daily count, since access to PCR testing is restricted.

The Ontario Medical Association published tips on Monday to help people stay and feel safe as restrictions ease, including wearing a mask in indoor public spaces, especially if vulnerable people or unvaccinated children are there, as well as keeping up to date with vaccinations and expecting there will be more booster shots.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 21, 2022.


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