To mask or unmask: mandatory face-covering bylaws spark unrest

On July 13, Waterloo Region municipality made face coverings mandatory to any individual travelling on public transit or entering enclosed spaces such as retail stores, grocery stores, and indoors restaurants. 

This face-covering bylaw has been spreading throughout the province and making its way to each municipality, leaving mixed feelings amongst residents. These varying emotions are not unique to this bylaw but have been present since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

While the restrictions and mandated bylaws in response to this health crisis are to help reduce the spread of COVID-19, they have become a deeply politicized debate due to the construction of pandemic culture. While the COVID-19 pandemic often compares to the historical 1918 flu pandemic,  and the more recent SARS virus, it’s important to keep in mind that all health crises are unique given the virus itself, and the current state of affairs. 

In our deeply interconnected society today, politicians and authorities are constantly being watched and receiving feedback from their audiences regarding their response to the current public health crisis. Certain authorities, such as Waterloo’s regional council, have implemented a mandatory face-covering bylaw because it has become a popular action by other municipalities, and it appeals to the masses. 

While health officials suggest wearing a mask can reduce the community spread of COVID-19, politicians are ultimately implementing this bylaw to serve their political agenda. 

On the other hand, certain politicians are against making face-coverings mandatory to appeal to anti-mask audiences but are still using this personal protective equipment (PPE) for themselves. While President Donald Trump has refused to make face-coverings mandatory, he was recently seen wearing a mask when visiting wounded service members at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center after refusing to wear a mask in public for months. 

Even though the United States is being hit hard by COVID-19, Trump continues to dismiss the severity of the virus. With the country’s presidential election approaching this fall, presidential candidate, Joe Biden has been appealing to pro-mask audiences by wearing a mask to protect others and demonstrate his loyalty to reducing the spread. 

While Biden is also using masks as a tool for his political campaign, the actions of both presidential candidates during this pandemic may have a strong influence on voters.

However, the public widely divides itself between the mandatory face-covering bylaws and pandemic restrictions in general. Some individuals are in favour of these government bylaws to help reduce the spread of COVID-19; while others feel these bylaws and restrictions are stripping away their rights as a free citizen.

In the early days of COVID-19, there was a significant backlash from people across the country in response to the government-mandated lockdown measures. While there have been larger protests in Europe and the United States, Canadians gathered in popular cities like Toronto for anti-lockdown protests. 

While these protests are reducing as restrictions are adjusted, some people are infuriated by the new mandatory face-covering bylaws, claiming that the government does not have the right to control the individual to that degree. 

Some anti-maskers continue to argue that masks make it difficult to breathe even though this claim has been disproven. Moreover, anti-mask extremists argue this is the first step towards mandatory vaccines that inadvertently carry tracking chips to create a 24/7 surveillance system for the government.

While anti-maskers give a wide range of reasons for their beliefs, face-coverings are ultimately a safety protocol. The safety of a mask is comparable to a seatbelt, both designed to protect people. While seatbelts were not always a mandatory safety precaution, they have proven to significantly reduce injuries in the event of a car accident. Similarly, a mask has proven to significantly reduce the spread of a droplet-transmitted virus, like COVID-19. 

Over time, and with the increased laws around seatbelts, society has accepted seatbelt laws and generally abides by them. While the threat of a car accident remains daily, the threat of COVID-19 may not last forever, but it’s in good practice to invest in safety towards both long-term and short-term threats.

Having said this, while anti-maskers refuse to wear a mask where necessary, they still expect to access the community and its services as they need or desire. Anti-maskers believe they are entitled to freedom of mobility but are not willing to compromise during these unprecedented times. 

If this demographic continues to protest the necessary restrictions to reduce the spread of COVID-19, we may see our communities facing another severe lockdown, like the beginning of the pandemic.

Across the pond, Australia’s second-largest city, Melbourne, went back into lockdown on July 8 after a spike in confirmed COVID-19 cases. Five million Australians now forced to stay in their homes for another six weeks since people were not following proper social distancing and health guidelines. Not to mention, their recently opened economy is back to square one with the closures of non-essential businesses and several in-person services. 

The threat of a second wave of COVID-19 continues to loom over multiple nations like Canada and their provinces, states, cities, and communities. The second wave of COVID-19 means re-entering lockdown and placing further strain on the economy; therefore, we need to stop the cycle. While we often wait for something to go wrong before fixing the issue, we cannot bet on a vaccine being available anytime soon and must practice the recommended health protocols. 

The coronavirus does not care who you are or what you believe in; you are still susceptible to its infection. The coronavirus does not choose who it infects; we make that decision when we choose to follow public health protocols or not. For that reason, masks are not a means for political debate; they are a medical device intended to protect people from an infectious disease.

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