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'Fingers are crossed': Local citizens have mixed emotions about lifting of mask mandate

'I think there is a lot of optimism right now for people to get back to some resemblance of normalcy and get business rolling again,' says owner of local hardware store
Laura Dickson
Harvey’s Orillia owner, Laura Dickson, says she is excited to hear the mask mandate will be lifted soon.

Orillia citizens and businesses are bracing for the lifting of the mask mandate on March 21.

Orillia doctor Jeff Pitcher said he finds it interesting that experts such as the province’s Chief Medical officer, Dr. Kieran Moore, have publicly advocated for the mask mandate to continue, and yet the mandate will be dropped in 10 days.  

“Besides immunizations, masking is an important way to mitigate the spread of the virus,” Pitcher told OrilliaMatters in a written statement. “Consider that wearing a mask can reduce your chance of contracting and spreading COVID-19. A well-fitted medical mask can protect you for 25 minutes against COVID and an N95 can protect you for at least three hours (up to 24 hours) if you’re in a room with a COVID case.”

Pitcher believes that public health officials should be putting out a warning to immunocompromised and vulnerable members of the community. However, the amendment of the Re-opening Ontario Act has allegedly handcuffed local medical officers of health to issue letters of instruction, which is congruent with the pre-pandemic plan to eliminate or merge public health units, Pitcher explained.

“Local public health is being restricted from implementing measures to protect your health,” he said. “The government and our local public health have decided that the pandemic is now in your hands.”

Pitcher recommends that parents of school-aged children continue to send their child to school with a mask as the Omicron variant is still a threat.

“Our cases are estimated to be over 12,000 per day right now in Ontario and I am seeing cases weekly of children with COVID,” he said. “Children under the age of five are un-vaccinated and are highly susceptible to getting Croup (inflammation which causes obstruction of the upper airways).”

Croup is treatable in most children, however, some children will have to be hospitalized with it. Pitcher says most children over the age of five who are vaccinated are highly unlikely to get seriously ill unless, of course, they are at risk (undergoing cancer treatment, respiratory condition, and neurological condition).

“The bigger concern I have is there is a high likelihood that children will spread the virus to their immediate household contacts and vulnerable family members (elderly or immunocompromised),” Pitcher said. “As mask mandates are lifted it is anticipated there will be more outbreaks of COVID-19 in various settings throughout our community.”

Pitcher has noticed that some local parents have set up Facebook groups to share data on COVID-19 in schools and daycares. He encourages more parents to look for or start a local Facebook group for their school or daycare

As for people working in busy public settings such as restaurants and bars, Pitcher says it is in the best interest of business owners to continue the masking mandate to protect their staff and customers.

“People spend an average of an hour in a restaurant without their mask on putting staff at high risk of contracting the virus,” he explained. “When staff contract the virus they will be off work for at least five days leading to staffing shortages. In addition, staff may develop a chronic cough which is common after COVID, which will make their patrons uncomfortable.”

Pitcher says he would expect restaurants to continue to have their staff masked.

“Otherwise, I would take my business elsewhere,” he said. “I personally do not feel comfortable eating in restaurants right now with cases being so high. So, I get takeout and eat at home.”

Laura Dickson, the owner of Harvey's on Memorial Avenue, says masks have served an important purpose over the last couple of years, and as uncomfortable as they have been, she believes they have made people safer.

“I’m excited to hear the mandate will be lifting soon,” she said. “However, with the high number of daily infections, I would be in the camp suggesting it’s a little premature (to lift the mandate) at this time.”

Dickson says her staff is having mixed feelings about the mask mandate being lifted.

“Based on the number of new cases being recorded, a lot of them are kind of in the same boat as me,” she said. “I’m committed to having some of the physical barriers in place to continue to help them feel better protected and we will be letting them determine their own comfort level for when they want to remove their masks.”

Dickson says she will supply medical-grade masks to staff who would like to continue wearing them. As for business, Dickson believes the lifting of restrictions will help businesses once people become more comfortable being within close proximity of others.

“We are fortunate to have multiple ways to serve our customers through drive-thru, mobile, and delivery options,” she said. “I can’t see much of a difference currently right now for us.”

Dickson says the lifting of mandates will be determined by how the virus spreads going forward.

“It would be great to see the daily case count going down and everybody being more comfortable being out in public and visiting local businesses,” she said. “Fingers are crossed that we will start to see routines return to normal, but we also don’t want to abandon the important behaviours we’ve learned over the last two years.”  

Home Hardware Orillia co-owner, Chris Locke, says the store will continue to follow the advice of the provincial government.

“It’s been a long two years,” he said. “People are probably in most cases looking forward to this.”

Locke says Home Hardware will still have a system in place to provide customers with assistance from a masked sales associate upon request.

“I think we still need to be cautious and sensible with distancing, and all that kind of stuff,” he said. “If we are working face to face in an office, we may need to still look at masking as an option.”

Home Hardware staff will be free to make their own decisions when it comes to masking, Locke says.

“Whether it’s health or personal reasons, we are absolutely fine with that,” he said. “We aren’t going to mandate that people have to wear one or can’t wear one by any means.”

Locke says it may take time for customers and staff to take masks off despite the easing of restrictions.

“People are going to ease into getting more comfortable with these sorts of things,” he said. “We are going to try to accommodate them on both sides of it.”    

Locke says the King Street store is a large building where people can distance themselves. He believes the lifting of restrictions will help smaller businesses where distancing is more difficult.

“I think this is fantastic for those folks,” he said. “I think there is a lot of optimism right now for people to get back to some resemblance of normalcy and get business rolling again.”

Locke says he is looking forward to seeing the faces and smiles of customers and staff again.

“We have a lot of new customers that I don’t really know what they look like,” he chuckled. “We are looking forward to reintroducing ourselves here.”