The province is mandating non-medical masks be worn in all indoor public spaces in Saskatoon, Regina and Prince Albert. The new public health order will come into effect Friday and be in place for 28 days. It doesn’t apply in schools, which have their own measures, including mask use, to curb the spread of the virus.
“Transmission trends in rural and smaller centres have been linked primarily to private gatherings, while transmission in the urban areas includes both private gatherings and exposures in public spaces,” the province wrote in a press release.
“Using a mask is an important additional layer of protection and it will help us control the spread of COVID-19 in our communities,” Premier Scott Moe said Tuesday afternoon.
“We should be under no illusion that a mandatory mask policy will solve everything. Much of the recent spread of the virus has occurred in private settings, in homes where we are comfortable and maybe let our guard down. That may be one of the places where we are most vulnerable because we tend to relax a little bit, relax all of our other good practices when we are around people we know and are comfortable with.”
Children under 2 years of age, anyone who is unconscious, incapacitated or unable to remove a mask without assistance and people actively engaged in physical exercise are exempt from the use of non-medical masks.
Mask use is also not mandatory in workplaces where the public does not have access, private homes and areas of residences, long-term care homes and communal living and public indoor areas when eating or drinking while seated or in a designated area.
Moe added that mask use “does not replace” measures such as physical distancing, washing hands and limiting circles of close contacts as much as possible. Moe also urged residents to avoid unnecessary out-of-province travel and take care even when travelling within Saskatchewan.
“None of these measures by themselves are going to prevent the spread of COVID-19, but all of them together will,” Moe said.
“We have reduced our case numbers in this province before, and I know we can do it again. It’s extremely important that we do it. It will be how we continue to keep our businesses open, our schools open, our public services open. It’s how we will reduce the potential pressure in our hospitals. Most importantly, it is how we will all save lives.”
Tuesday’s announcement also came with a reduction in the cap on private gatherings in the home setting, decreasing to 10 from 15. Gatherings larger than 10 must be held in a public venue, and the guidelines of that venue must be followed. All guidelines are available at saskatchewan.ca/re-open.
Residents in all communities are encouraged to wear a non-medical mask anywhere outside the home. Residents are also encouraged to identify a single member of the household to run errands and do grocery shopping, limit those errands to once per week and work from home if possible.
“Shopping shouldn’t be a social event where you’re meeting people in the aisle,” the province’s chief medical health officer, Dr. Saqib Shahab said.
“I think we need to streamline and get some of this crowding down.”
Shahab said the mask order helps businesses to “level the playing field” and takes away the pressure placed on businesses of requiring a mask or not.
“If you’re going inside for five minutes, 10 minutes, 20 minutes, just take out the mask and put it on. It’s a simple gesture that says ‘I’m protecting you,’” Shahab said.
“It’s the least we can do now that our COVID rates are getting higher, especially in these three areas of the province. Anywhere else in the province — just put the mask on. It keeps everyone safe.”
Shahab said that while mask use alone won’t bend the curve back downward, data has shown that if 80 to 90 per cent of the population wears a non-medical mask while in indoor public places, it can lower the transmission rate by as much as 50 per cent.
“It’s a bit of a sacrifice to put the mask on and keep it on, but if we all do it collectively, it can have a significant impact,” he said.
Moe and Shahab said other jurisdictions have seen mask use increase when mandatory mask orders have been put into place. In a press release, the province said that education will be the primary preference of public health over enforcement, depending on observed compliance with the order.
“The purpose is not to enforce right off the bat, the purse is to make this an expected thing when we go into an indoor public place,” Shahab said.
“We’re not going to have a bunch of COVID cops that are out travelling across the province enforcing mask use in our public spaces,” Moe added.
“This is about compliance and the onus being on us as individuals to do the right thing and wear masks in public spaces un these three centres.”
While Shahab is encouraging residents across the province to wear a mask when inside a public indoor place, the order only applies to those three cities.
“We’re especially emphasizing it in these three locations because of the increase of the transmission risk here, but my recommendation is province-wide,” Shahab said. If we all have a high level of compliance, just like physical distancing, and see our case numbers go down, this may be sufficient.
The order comes as positive cases continue to climb across Saskatchewan.
Tuesday’s update saw 81 new cases across Saskatchewan, including 16 in the north central zone, 29 in Saskatoon, 14 in the north west and 10 in Regina.
North Central 2, the subzone that consists of Prince Albert, saw eight new cases, bringing the city’s active case total to 61.
Province-wide, there are 28 people in the hospital. Of those, 21 are receiving inpatient care and seven are in intensive care, including two in north central.
Shahab had previously said that if the province is averaging between 60 and 120 cases per day, more significant measures would be put into place. Since last Friday, the province has been averaging over 70 cases a day. That converts to a rate of six cases per 100,000 population.
“While we need to be prepared to see higher case numbers in the fall than the summer, we need to do everything we can to try to stabilize this,” Shahab said.
“Even if we take all the actions today, we may see the numbers go high for a bit. hopefully, we can start gently bending the curve downwards again. That’s what we need to do.”
Shahab also said that the increasing number of cases with no known COVID-19 contacts is another concern, which is why “all the layers of protection” are important.
While Shahab said Saskatchewan is seeing a similar upward trend that other provinces have seen, he doesn’t see this latest spike as a second wave. Each province has had a different experience, he said, and in Saskatchewan, it’s been a series of peaks and valleys and local outbreaks.
“Our pace is getting higher. This is really our first true wave, and our first true test as a province to actually turn this around. We did really well … when we had localized outbreaks, nut this is a bit broader and that’s why it needs all of us to pull together and practice all these layers of protection more consistently.”
Shahab said he hopes the new measures work. He said he’ll be watching closely over the next few weeks. It will take some time for the results of the new measures to be reflected in the data, but it’s Shahab’s hope that this 28-day measure will help bring the number of new cases in the city’s largest three urban centres back under control.
If not, the province could be in for a rough ride. Saskatchewan’s current daily case numbers are similar to what Manitoba saw a week or two ago. Now, both Manitoba and Alberta are seeing large spikes in daily case counts, averaging over 100 new cases per day. In some areas, such as Winnipeg, businesses have been ordered closed and a curfew considered. Moe said Saskatchewan has a chance to avoid a similar fate.
“We’re in a little bit of a fork in the road here. Let’s take a different path,” he said.
“Let’s re-evaluate what we’re doing each and every day. Let’s not let these numbers get much higher. There’s an opportunity for us to do something different here. We all have to take our personal responsibility very seriously. I don’t like wearing a mask more than anybody else, but I’m going to do it to keep those around me and those I care about safe.”
Breakout box: A non-exhaustive list of indoor public spaces
- All healthcare facilities
- All long-term care, personal care homes and assisted living facilities
- Medical service centres and offices
- Retail businesses
- Shopping centres and malls
- Personal services businesses, such as hair and nail salons, spas, body art facilities, except during services that require removing a mask
- Restaurants and bars, except while eating or drinking while seated in designated areas
- Places of worship or faith gatherings
- Places for cultural or entertainment services or activities, such as movie theatres, arcades, concerts and other performances
- Places for sports and recreational activities, such as a gym, ice arena, pool, gymnastic facility, dance facility or indoor court or field facility, except while participating in physical exertion
- Places for events, such as conferences and receptions
- Municipal, provincial or federal government locations offering services to the public
- Common areas of tourist accommodations, such as lobbies, elevators and hallways
- Common areas of office buildings, such as lobbies, elevators and hallways, but not private offices
- Public areas of a university or college campus, such as library or student union building, classrooms, hallways and other common areas, but not labs, offices or residences
- Train or bus stations, ferry terminals and airports
- Public transport, including cabs, ride share services and carpooling.