Coronavirus
Health

With no known Covid-19 cases, NWT face masks are slipping


The NWT thinks you should wear a cloth face mask in public. Are you doing it? Did you never bother? Or did you start, and then give up?

Residents have settled in to a reality of restrictions at the territorial border and a ban on gatherings. But the recommendation about face masks is just that – a recommendation, not a rule.

Dr Kami Kandola, the NWT’s chief public health officer, advised in early April that residents should wear cloth face coverings in public. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau similarly championed the benefits of homemade masks, famously stating they prevent people from “speaking moistly” on others.

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Walk into a Yellowknife store, though, and few people seem overly concerned.

Those who are wearing masks gave Cabin Radio a variety of reasons: protecting themselves and others, setting an example for their children, or reminding others to follow public health precautions. 

Yellowknife resident George Lessard said he wears a mask in public as he’s a senior and some people in his apartment building haven’t been respecting social distancing in public spaces.

“One of the realities of the North that we forget about when we’re here is that we’re a lot closer to that life-death point than most people in Canada are all the time,” he said. 

“We know where survival starts and stops.” 

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Lessard appreciates the floor decals that help people keep their distance at stores, and the plastic dividers at checkouts. But he doesn’t see a lot of people wearing masks.

“We’re doing a really good job but there’s a lot of ignorance, and there’s a lot of not thinking yet,” he said.

No active cases, less risk?

The NWT officially has no active cases of Covid-19. The five people in the territory to test positive all recovered more than a week ago.

Several Yellowknifers told Cabin Radio they haven’t been wearing masks because they don’t feel they are currently at risk.

Diane Kent, who works at the Liquor Shop, said that while the store is still getting heavy traffic, she sees fewer than 20 customers a day wearing face masks.

Other northerners have questioned the effectiveness of homemade cloth masks – the type recommended by Dr Kandola – compared to medical-grade masks, which are in short supply. (Dr Theresa Tam, the federal chief public health officer, has said non-medical masks aren’t proven to help the person wearing them but can reduce the spread of infectious droplets.) 

Health Canada says any homemade mask needs to cover your nose and mouth completely, needs at least two layers of tightly woven fabric, must fit securely to your head with ties or ear loops, and can’t require frequent adjustment. 

In the United States, people of colour have raised concerns about safety wearing face masks over fears of racial profiling. Some Asian people say they have also faced racism while wearing masks in public.

Meanwhile, reports in the US have suggested people are committing crimes while wearing face masks during the pandemic, as they offer a convenient and easily explained means of protecting their identity. (Such crimes have not yet been reported in Canada.)

RCMP in the NWT did not directly respond to questions about whether the masks could pose security challenges. A spokesperson said the RCMP supports the chief public health officer’s recommendations.

But there have been cases across Canada and the North where people have had to remove face coverings for identification purposes, and there are questions about where the balance should lie between protecting health and enforcing laws.

‘That defeats the whole purpose’

Travel is one example.

Since April 20, all air passengers in Canada are required to wear a face covering over their mouth and nose. Travellers are required to remove their face mask at verification points.

According to Transport Canada, passengers are asked to “step back to an appropriate distance and remove or lower their non-medical mask or face covering.” At customs, people arriving in Canada are asked to lower their face covering and have their photo taken. Once a person’s identity has been verified they can recover their mouth and nose. 

According to Greg Hanna, a spokesperson for the territorial Department of Infrastructure, 524 passengers arrived at the Yellowknife Airport from outside the territory between March 27 and April 23. (The department is not currently tracking departures from the territory.)

A hand sanitizer dispenser inside Yellowknife's downtown liquor store

A hand sanitizer dispenser inside Yellowknife’s downtown liquor store. Sarah Pruys/Cabin Radio

A second example is at liquor stores.

Go to the Liquor Shop in Yellowknife wearing a face mask and if you’re asked to show ID at the checkout, the mask must be briefly removed.

Acting manager Megan Sacrey said this is less a security issue and more a legal one.

But Kevin Walby, an associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Winnipeg, thinks asking people to remove their face coverings – even to check their ID – contradicts public health advice.

“As soon as you touch a door handle with your hand and then touch your mask to remove it to verify your identification, you’re potentially contaminating your mask and yourself,” he said. “If you’re pulling off your mask and then breathing into the space, that defeats the whole purpose, you’re potentially contaminating someone else.”

It’s not like there’s a whole bunch of missing information with a mask over your mouth.

KEVIN WALBY

Walby said people are also asked to remove their masks to verify their identity at liquor stores in Manitoba. Beginning in November, Manitoba Liquor and Lotteries began installing controlled entrances at liquor stores across the province as an anti-theft measure. All customers are required to show valid ID at these entrances before they are allowed into the store. 

Walby said security staff should be able to verify someone’s identity while they’re wearing a face covering. He noted that ID documents include details about a person like their height, weight, and eye colour.

“It’s not like there’s a whole bunch of missing information with a mask over your mouth, you can still make out if this is the person or not,” he said.

“I think if they’re asking for valid ID and you have one and you can present it, that should be good enough in the context of a pandemic.”

Overall, Walby said, security approaches during the pandemic need to prioritize public health. 

“It would be nice to see any kind of thoughts about security and policing having more of a public health first focus instead of simply a punitive focus,” he said.

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