KITCHENER -- Two bylaws that made face coverings mandatory in Waterloo Region have been the subject of much debate.

In a council meeting where regional councillors debated the issue on Monday evening, 20 delegates and dozens of letters voiced opinions for and against the measures.

Some people applauded the region for its decision to take further steps to prevent the possibility of another wave of the virus, while others questioned the necessity as local cases trend down.

Regional councillors listened patiently before debating the bylaws and coming to a decision.

Ultimately the region passed both bylaws by unanimous vote, but not until some major changes were made.

Here's what you need to know about the mandatory face covering bylaws in Waterloo Region, which go into effect on July 13.

Face coverings can help prevent the spread of COVID-19

Region of Waterloo Public Health officials say that a face covering can prevent respiratory droplets from reaching others or landing on surfaces.

COVID-19 mainly spreads person-to-person through these droplets, when an infected person coughs, sneezes or talks.

Officials say masks are especially important in situations where physical distancing is difficult or inconsistent.

Read more: Here's what you need to know about wearing a mask in public

Council passed two bylaws concerning masks

There are two different bylaws that were passed on Monday night.

The first deals with transit, adding masks to the Grand River Transit Code of Use.

CAO Mike Murray explained during a media briefing on Tuesday that the Code of Use has been enforced for years and will therefore be easy to adjust.

The Code of Use lays out the rules in cases where people can be fined or asked to leave based on their behaviour or non-compliance with the rules.

In cases where people are deliberately flouting the mask bylaws on transit, Murray said they can receive a ticket of up to $240.

The other bylaw deals with indoor spaces like stores and shopping malls, indoor areas of restaurants, lobbies of commercial buildings and indoor concert and theatre venues.

In those cases, Murray said that the region has applied for a set fine from the province to be able to issue $240 tickets to people when needed.

In the meantime, people who are charged will be given a provincial summons to be dealt with when courts open again, which is expected to be in September.

Those fines, decided on by a justice of the peace, can reach up to $1,000.

There are exceptions around who needs to wear them

The bylaw is meant to ensure that as many people as possible are wearing masks in situations where they can't by physically distant, but officials understand there are a number of reasons why some people may not be able to wear them.

The exemptions include:

  • Kids under five;
  • Those who have a medical condition or disability that would prevent them from being able to wear masks;
  • A person engaged in a sport or other strenuous physical activity (including those doing physical activity at gyms, once they reopen in phase three);
  • Someone assisting or accommodating someone with hearing loss or a hearing disability; and
  • People who are consuming food or drink as part of a religious activity in a place of worship.

Regional officials say that someone who is unable to wear a mask does not have to provide proof that that's the case.

"Some disabilities are invisible so we ask people to respect that," an information page on the region's website explains in part.

Education, not enforcement, will be the region's priority

While fines are possible, Region of Waterloo officials say their first priority is to educate people to ensure compliance.

Since people are not required to prove that they can't wear a mask, Murray admitted Tuesday that there likely won't be many fines given, but that there will be circumstances when people repeatedly go against the bylaw that they could be.

Rather, bylaw officers will take the time to educate people on the reasons why the public is being asked to cover their faces.

During Monday's council meeting, Kitchener Mayor Berry Vrbanovic put forth a motion that meant business owners would not have to enforce the bylaw, as has been the case in Guelph and in Wellington County.

The motion passed.

Instead, business owners are asked to print and display signage in clear view for customers to see before they enter.

It's up to you to provide your own face-covering, mostly

The Region of Waterloo says it's up to residents to supply their own masks or face coverings, including homemade or reusable ones.

Some businesses may supply masks, but they're not required to do so.

One business that will provide masks to people who need them, though, is Grand River Transit.

Regional Chair Karen Redman said during Tuesday's media briefing that GRT had acquired 40,000 masks, about half of which are reusable, to provide to customers boarding who don't have their own.

There are a number of guides online that show how to create your own mask, as well, including some that show how to make a face covering out of an old (clean) sock or out of a t-shirt.