Masking a ‘personal choice,’ Ontario health minister says in contrast to top doctor

Ford said Sunday that Ontarians should wear a mask every time possible.

By Liam Casey in Toronto

Ontario’s health minister said it’s a “personal choice” to wear a mask Tuesday, one day after the province’s top doctor urged everyone to do so in all indoor spaces.

A masked Sylvia Jones defended the majority of her Progressive Conservative colleagues who did not wear masks in the legislature — including Premier Doug Ford. Twelve other Tory colleagues wore masks, including the Speaker of the House. 

All opposition members wore masks.

“Personal choice is important here, and we should not be passing judgment on people who wear a mask or not wear a mask,” she said outside the legislature while wearing a mask.

Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore pleaded Monday for Ontarians to wear masks in all indoor settings an effort to help overwhelmed children’s hospitals, which are seeing historic volumes of really sick children, largely due to high levels of influenza and respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV.

Pediatric hospitals across the province are at capacity, he said. Those hospitals have had to cancel non-urgent surgeries to deal with the surge of young patients in intensive care, emergency departments and pediatric wards.

Jones, who had COVID-19 three weeks ago, said the size of the room is important when considering masks, which is not what Moore said.

“I think you have to take into consideration the size of the building, the size of the room,” she said. “You know we all make individual choices.”

Ford said Sunday that Ontarians should wear a mask “every time possible.” He repeatedly said he’d follow Moore’s advice.

During question period on Tuesday, Ford did not answer several questions about why he was going against Moore’s advice to wear a mask indoors. Jones and another top minister, Paul Calandra, spoke in his stead.

When asked why he didn’t wear a mask, a spokeswoman for Ford said Jones addressed it in her comments to reporters.

The opposition criticized the Tory government for their bare faces.

“It’s a total absence of leadership,  they’re not taking medical officer of health seriously,” said interim New Democrat Leader Peter Tabuns.

“We have to do the difficult things and demonstrate to the public that we are willing to not just talk the talk, but walk the walk,” said Liberal MPP Adil Shamji, who is also an emergency room physician.

“So in my opinion, absolutely the government should be following the advice of the chief medical officer of health.”

The mixed messaging from top health officials on masking is a problem, said Dr. Andrew Boozary, the executive director of social medicine at the University Health Network.

“We just have to see consistency both in the messaging and the action that takes place,” Boozary said.

“I think a lesson we’ve seen play out throughout the pandemic is just how important communication has to be for the public. There needs to be clarity on masking recommendations and clarity on the point at which any masking mandates would come into place.”

Moore said a masking mandate remains on the table, but only said it would come into play when the health-care system sees increased pressure.

Dr. Fahad Razak, the former scientific director of the since-disbanded science table, said everyone should be wearing masks inside “to the full extent possible.”

“Many people, including myself, would have liked to see a mandate in the busiest essential crowded indoor settings, places like transit or grocery stores or health-care settings,” he said.

“It will help reduce viral spread and a mandate signals the seriousness of the situation and as long as you leave it optional, no matter how strong the statement encouraging people, people will interpret that differently.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 15, 2022.