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Region of Waterloo schedules meeting to discuss masking bylaw, staff recommends terminating

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Officials with the Region of Waterloo have scheduled a meeting to discuss the future of area’s mask bylaw, including the possibility of revoking it.

On Wednesday, Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore said most indoor masking requirements will end on March 21.

The region implemented its own mask bylaw before the province.

“It’s really important that regional council receive public input and staff recommendation prior to making any decision locally,” said Regional Chair Karen Redman said. "We have always taken an evidence based, pragmatic approach, so we're looking for public input and then a discussion with our medical officer of health, and then council will decide the way forward."

On Thursday, an official with the Region of Waterloo confirmed the meeting will take place on March 16. 

In the meeting, the region could decide to terminate the local mask mandate or let it continue.

“We have made decisions based on science and evidence, so I hope we will continue to do that,” Redman said.

On the agenda for the meeting, regional staff are recommending the bylaw be repealed by March 21.

Kitchener Mayor Berry Vrbanovic said regional officials have aligned themselves with the province for most of the pandemic.

“Let’s be kind, let’s be gracious, and let’s be understanding of each other as we go through the transition in the next little while,” he said.

The region also has a second bylaw requiring masks on public transit. The provincial guidelines for this state that masks will continue to be worn on public transit until April 27.

Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Public Health will follow the province’s lead and drop its mask mandate on March 21.

“While we continue to move forward, there is no end date for the pandemic,” a statement from WDG Public Health said in part. “We can move forward only as quickly as our individual situations dictate.”

PERSONAL RISK ASSESSMENT

Moore said it’s a move from emergency responses to living with and managing COVID-19 in the province. He said each person will now need to assess their own risk factors when it comes to wearing a mask.

“That’s where we move from a mandate to choice,” Moore said at a media conference on Wednesday. “Removing the mask mandate does not mean the risk is gone. COVID-19 transmission is still occurring across the province. In fact, we can expect indicators such as cases and hospitalizations to increase slightly.”

Face coverings will still be required in health-care settings, congregate care settings, long-term care homes and on public transit.

“I do encourage all Ontarians to continue to wear masks if they are vulnerable to this virus, if they have any underlying illness, if they are immune suppressed in any way,” Moore said.

Premier Doug Ford said people will be able to make their own decisions about masking.

“If you want to keep your mask on, keep it on,” he said. “If you want to take it off, take it off. But, we have to move forward from this.”

‘A LITTLE BIT EARLY’

Zahid Butt, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Waterloo, said he believes it’s “a little bit early” to remove the mandate.”

“Even now, considering the weather, a lot of people are still indoors, a lot of things are still not outdoors,” he said.

Butt said he’s concerned there will be another spike in new cases.

Moore said the mask mandate could return if there is another COVID-19 variant emerges, or during the winter months when COVID-19 and other respiratory viruses may start to circulate again.

“If we see an increasing burden on the hospital system, we may move from a recommendation to a mandate,” Moore said.

Officials are encouraging people to be kind and respectful to people who do choose to keep wearing a mask.

NO MASKS AFTER MARCH BREAK

School boards in Waterloo Region said they’ve received a directive from the Ministry of Education about removing the mask mandate once students return from March break. However, they haven’t provided any details.

Some parents say they will continue to encourage their children to wear masks, while others will stop wearing them come March 21.

Local teachers’ unions have raised concerns about ending the mask mandate.

“We don’t know what it’s going to look like. We look forward to learning a little bit more about the details, but there’s a lot of fear out there and we’ve already had a lot of people reaching out about that,” said Jeff Pelich with EFTO Waterloo Region.

“Hopefully we can ease away from them, not just pull them off in one fell swoop on the 21st of March. That seems irresponsible,” said Patrick Etmanski with OECTA Waterloo Region.

On Thursday, Waterloo Catholic Distric School Board announced students would no longer be required to wear a mask after March Break.

However, the director of education says they are still encouraging the gradual release of their use and that masks will continue to be provided for staff who want them.

There are two more school days before students leave for March break.

Correction

An earlier version of this story stated that Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Public Health would also lift its mask bylaw on March 21. The mask mandate for WDG was put in place by a Section 22 order from Medical Officer of Health Dr. Nicola Mercer, rather than created as a bylaw by city council. The Section 22 order for WDG will be lifted on March 21.

An earlier version of this story stated Region of Waterloo council was meeting to decide whether to extend the bylaw. The meeting is to decide whether to revoke the bylaw, as it would be automatically extended if no action is taken.

This story has also been updated to make clear that the meeting on March 16 is a new meeting, not a rescheduled meeting.

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