KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – What is it that people in Nova Scotia have against masks? Look around you, in the supermarkets, in Spring Garden drugstores downtown – sure, some people are wearing masks – but most aren’t.
By and large, people around here are distancing properly. They are using the squirt bottles of sanitizer set out at shop entrances and if the still-scarce supplies of soft soap are any indication, are washing their hands pretty often. But after early contradictory advice, virtually every medical organization, from WHO, the Public Health Agency of Canada, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, and on down, is now calling masks an essential element in preventing the spread of the virus — “the most effective means to prevent interhuman transmission,” according to the U.S. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. To back that up, there was the recent story about two hair stylists in Missouri, who didn’t realize they were positive, whose masks prevented a single one of their 140 clients from becoming infected.
But somehow an awful lot of Halifax people are just not getting the word – or caring. Not that anybody is belligerent about it. No bars around here are refusing to serve people in masks, like the ones in Texas. Nor is anyone behaving like certain government officials in Nebraska and Washington, D.C., sneering that people wearing masks are weak and un-macho. Nova Scotians who aren’t wearing masks in indoor public spaces seem to go out of their way to exhibit their tolerance and good will towards others of differing opinions – as if the medical act of mask-wearing was all just part of the grand array of diverse ideas, rather than a scientifically effective method of curbing this plague.
“Personally, I don’t mind if people wear them,” said Liam Cantaw, a maskless 24-year-old on break from the butcher counter at Pete’s on Dresden. “Maybe it’s even better to. But at my age I don’t have to worry.”
As several people, out and about in supermarkets and coffee shops last weekend, put it (all using the same word): It’s a matter of choice. Christine Hamilton, sitting on a bench in the Public Garden on a recent Saturday, said she always wears a mask, which she had pulled under her chin to allow her to chat with the maskless friend beside her. But she said it doesn’t bother her that others don’t. “You’re responsible for your own health,” she said.
But in fact, you’re not. With Covid, you’re actually responsible for other people’s health, and they’re responsible for yours. It’s a great example of the social contract that Canadians pride themselves on, along the lines of the no-smoking regulations in public places. (And by the way, that idea that younger means no worries? Half the infections in Canada are among those under 50.)
As the Canada Health website states: by wearing a mask you are protecting others from your potentially infected exhalations, and the masks that others wear protect you from theirs. A highly informative article in The Atlantic magazine explains how masks prevent infections in others: “It’s like stopping gushing water from a hose right at the source, by turning off the faucet, compared with the difficulty of trying to catch all the drops of water after we’ve pointed the hose up and they’ve flown everywhere…reducing droplets expelled from our mouths by as much as 99 percent.”
That is why Ken Wilson, head of the Halifax transit union, is pushing the city to require masks of bus and ferry passengers. “To protect the drivers and make people confident about riding buses again,” he said, referring to ridership that has fallen about 90 percent. Hamilton and Ottawa are requiring masks on buses, he said, and Toronto is planning to. Meanwhile, more and more provinces and U.S. states are beginning to require masks in many public spaces.
But in Nova Scotia, masks are optional just about everywhere – in other words, masks are a choice. Premier McNeil’s memorable “Stay the Blazes Home” found its way onto t-shirts. But now that the province is opening up, the only official comment on face coverings, from Dr. Robert Strang, chief medical officer, is: “People should consider wearing masks” in indoor public spaces where distancing isn’t possible.
However, few people seem to be listening to even that equivocal and unmemorable advice. “As long as it’s a suggestion,” said Mr. Wilson, “people won’t.”
And they aren’t. Take the repair man who came to my home a few days ago to fix my washer. He seemed surprised when I asked if he’d please wear a mask. “I don’t have one,” he said, and seemed downright startled when he realized I wasn’t letting him in without one. Fortunately, a passing delivery driver had an extra, or my washer would still be on the fritz.
At the Superstore on Quinpool, Greg Smyth, a security guard standing by the entrance to limit the number of shoppers, wasn’t bothering with a mask, either, though he was inches from dozens and dozens of people brushing right past him. “I’m not too concerned,” he said. “Personally, I’m in a good place if I get sick. I’d be taken care of. I’d get sick pay. The hospitals aren’t flooded. And the stats – we’re 99.9 percent recovered.”
Flooded or not, it still seems smart to stay healthy and avoid hospital beds, if at all possible. But Greg Smyth is right – Nova Scotia’s number of new cases, always low (except for the enclosed disaster of Northwood) have been zero for many days. But with Covid, it only takes one asymptomatic carrier hanging out with friends to shoot that caseload up quickly.
Furthermore, all of Canada’s provinces as well as the U.S.-Canada border are slated to open as early as July 21. What better place to relax from the stress of the past months — and the looming American elections — than a Nova Scotia beach cottage or the waterfront with a lobster roll?
Canada is known and envied for its social responsibility in medical matters. The effectiveness of non-medical masks in avoiding viral spread is no longer debatable. Dr. Strang must get out the word – people should get masks and wear them in public places where they can’t distance.
Supermarkets are a prime example, and on a recent Saturday, Jill MacDonald pulled up her mask as she waited to enter Pete’s. “It’s a little cumbersome,” she acknowledged. But, she said: “We’re in society together. Let’s all do this together.”
Sophie, a secretary, asked about her mask while shopping on Gottingen the other day, put it even more succinctly: “For others,” she said. “Out of respect for others.”
Barbara Elizabeth Stewart is a writer and university teacher who worked in New York City, India, Bhutan and the United Emirates. She moved to Halifax two years ago.
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