Hamilton city council has voted to scrap municipal bylaws requiring indoor masking and social distancing in public spaces, despite pleas from a minority on council who say the city’s most vulnerable residents will suffer unequally from the change.
The motions, brought forward by Mayor Fred Eisenberger and seconded by Ancaster councillor Lloyd Ferguson, brings the city in line with the province of Ontario, which repealed its masking requirement as of Monday.
With the provincial changes, masks will no longer be required in most indoor settings, including restaurants, retail, fitness centres and grocery stores and schools.
For now, mandates will remain in place for public transit, long-term care and retirement homes, shelters, jails and congregate care and living settings. The Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board is also keeping its masking mandate until April 1.
On April 27, all other masking mandates and emergency orders are set to expire.
The motions repeal bylaws city council put in place early in the pandemic, before the province introduced its own masking and distancing regulations.
The vote to rescind the physical-distancing bylaw passed unanimously, 14-0.
But Ward 1 councillor Maureen Wilson and Ward 3 councillor Nrinder Nann opposed dropping the mask rule. That vote passed 12-2.
“The province is putting us in a really untenable position here,” said Wilson.
“We should be changing restrictions when it is reasonable and safe for populations that are the most vulnerable, not for those that are the least.”
Despite being the one introducing the motion, Eisenberger expressed “anxiety” about lifting the bylaw, but said that keeping it locally would put Hamilton in the awkward position of having a different set of rules than surrounding municipalities.
“I worry about the impacts of this in our broader community, but I don’t see a way around what the province has already let out of the barn in terms of policy,” he said at a special council meeting on Monday. “If we fail to follow through, there is going to be lots of conflict in our community.”
He pleaded with residents to continue practicing COVID-safe behaviours.
“I highly, highly, highly recommend people continue to mask in public spaces,” he said. “I highly, highly, highly recommend people get their booster shot. In my opinion, it should be mandatory.
“We’re not through this pandemic by any stretch. To completely throw caution to the wind, to me, sounds like the timing of that is a little off.”
Earlier Monday, Hamilton’s medical officer of health Dr. Elizabeth Richardson said the public health department supports the move away from mandatory masking.
“We are at the point where we need to transition from requirement to choice,” she said at a board of health meeting, while noting several COVID indicators that had been on the decline have plateaued since restrictions were lifted over the past month.
However, Richardson said she wouldn’t rule out a return to masking at some point.
“New variants or waning immunity may drive up case numbers and/or severity significantly, and impact the health system requiring a return to more stringent measures,” she said.
At a city COVID-19 media briefing later in the day, the city said hospitalizations in the Hamilton area had been on a downward trend and have recently plateaued, with almost two new hospital admissions each day. There were no new admissions to intensive care units over the weekend, the city said.
The city also announced it would no longer be scheduling regular media briefings on COVID-19 and instead do so on an ad-hoc basis, depending on new announcements.
Modelling shows best-case scenario
The vote on masking came on the same day that the board of health saw modelling that shows a potential new 26,600 COVID-19 cases in coming months — 17,500 of which could be avoided by the end of May if the virus does not experience a resurgence over the coming weeks.
“There are some early signs of an increase in cases, also an increase in transmission. There is also the possibility to keep cases low if changes in our behaviour are moderate at this phase of reopening,” said Ruth Sanderson, an epidemiologist with forecasting contractor Scarsin.
The latest round of virus modelling by Scarsin showed two scenarios: a best-case scenario, where there is no resurgence of COVID-19 in coming weeks, and an alternative scenario where cases continue to increase until a peak in mid- to late-April.
Sanderson said the province’s continued reopening means an increase of cases is “likely,” noting the company’s forecasts are in line with those done by the province’s COVID-19 Science Advisory Table.
The scenario that shows an increase in cases is forecasting a “small swell” of 200 COVID-19 hospitalizations between now and the end of May, said Sanderson, saying 140 of those could be avoided if virus spread stayed at its current level.
“There is the potential for those ages 20 to 59 to experience higher level of hospitalizations than those for 80-plus,” she added, noting this has changed over the course of the pandemic because older residents are more likely to have third and fourth vaccine doses. “Severe outcomes are predicted to continue to occur primarily for those 60 and above.”
‘Who is served by this? And who is harmed?’: councillor
Wilson, who was one of two to vote against repealing the mask mandate, expressed concern that public health messaging appears to be shifting away from protecting the least vulnerable of the city’s residents.
“The messaging around masks from the very beginning was that my mask protects you and your mask protects me,” she said. “If you’re not wearing a mask, you’re not protecting me…
“You’re not protecting that essential worker that has no opportunity to work from home. Who is served by this and who is harmed,” she asked.
She said that marginalized and low-income people have been over-represented among those contracting the virus, and those having severe outcomes.
“The rate of death per capita of the lowest-income quintile is double that of the highest quintile,” she said. “Wearing a piece of cloth across your face is not the equivalent of a lockdown… Universal masking indoors is a very low-barrier safety measure. It reduces the disparities facing this community in terms of risk. More than that, it equalizes opportunities to socialize.”
Several of the councillors in support of the repeal spoke of the need to reduce ongoing community tension that was caused by disagreement over COVID-19 protocols.
“If we don’t do this, we are really setting up the businesses to take a lot of [aggression] at the door,” said Ward 9 councillor Brad Clark, citing a hypothetical mom-and-pop pizzeria that will likely face anger from people who know masks have been repealed elsewhere in Ontario. “People are just ripping a strip out of each other and this has got to stop.”
Ward 4 Councillor Sam Merulla, who says he won’t run in the fall election, called out those who say they follow science, yet aren’t supporting the medical officer of health’s view that the mask mandate is no longer necessary.
“I’m beside myself and saddened by it,” he said. “I know it’s an election year, but get over it. At least be consistent.”