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N.L. mandatory mask rule comes into effect despite no active cases of COVID-19

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On Duckworth Street in St. John’s, N.L., shoppers were compliant, if not outright enthusiastic, about the indoor mask-wearing order that entered into effect across the province Monday.

Newfoundland and Labrador has enjoyed a summer with relaxed restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic and fewer than a dozen reported cases of the illness. Health authorities last week declared no active cases of COVID-19 in the province.

Ron Linegar, chef at Caines Grocery & Deli, said he’s heard complaints about the mask order being overkill with such little transmission in the community. But, he said, wearing a mask is an easy gesture of respect for others during the crisis.

“Just get over it. It’s not too hard,” Linegar said Monday outside the store, wearing a blue mask.

The deli has been serving customers throughout the pandemic, and Linegar said masks are another way to take care of them. “For me, it’s more than just I’m told to wear it,” he said. “I want to wear it for the customers.”

Mask-wearing is mandatory for everyone above the age of five, in all indoor public places across the province, such as retail stores, public transportation, fitness centres and movie theatres. People with certain health conditions are exempt.

On Monday, the few shoppers and workers on Duckworth Street who braved the heavy rain sported masks as they dashed from their cars to the stores.

Ceanne Giovannini has been wearing a mask since the beginning of the pandemic, she said, as she is battling cancer. Giovannini said the order makes her feel safer. “I love the fact that we have to wear one,” she said.

Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Janice Fitzgerald, surprised the public when she announced the measure last week.

She said authorities are trying to make mask-wearing widespread before schools reopen and people begin interacting more and in larger numbers.

“This will give people time to get used to wearing them and hopefully will reduce the spread … so that we don’t get a second wave,” Fitzgerald told reporters last week. “That’s what we want, ultimately.”

People can be fined for violating the order but Fitzgerald said the emphasis will be on education rather than enforcement.

Newfoundland and Labrador last reported a case of COVID-19 Aug. 10. The province has reported 268 cases since the pandemic began and three deaths linked to the novel coronavirus.

Fitzgerald noted last week that the public has been generally compliant with her public health orders.

Emma Vatcher, another downtown shopper, said she’s become used to wearing her mask at work in the service industry. But she wondered why the rule wasn’t put in place in the spring when cases peaked in the province.

“I feel like it should have been mandatory to wear them earlier on in the year,” she said. “But at the same time they’re kind of expecting a second wave to happen. If this can prevent a second wave from being really bad I think it’s worth it.”

The order hasn’t gone without opposition.

Small groups of protesters gathered outside the provincial legislature over the weekend with signs decrying the “medical tyranny” of the mask-wearing order. Protesters said the directive infringes on personal freedoms. One person came out to protest outside the legislature Monday afternoon.

The order has also attracted some scrutiny because mask-wearing rules are stricter for the general public than for students and teachers in public schools.

Masks must be worn on buses but only high school students will be required to wear masks, and only in common areas.

The province’s largest school district will provide reusable masks to all students and teachers, but the Newfoundland and Labrador Teachers’ Association still took issue with the discrepancy.

“The NLTA is concerned with looser public health protection for children and teachers compared to the strict public health expectations that all people use masks when in public spaces,” it said in a statement last week.