B.C. doctor heads to court to demand mandatory mask rules

A family doctor in Burnaby, B.C., is asking for a court injunction requiring the province to bring in a mandatory mask policy for indoor spaces like restaurants, schools and public transit.

Dr. Wei Li filed a notice of application in B.C. Supreme Court Thursday morning, calling for Health Minister Adrian Dix to be restrained from allowing B.C. to continue operating in Phase 3 of the COVID-19 pandemic response without requiring masks in indoor, public environments.

“Reopening communities while failing to require citizens to wear masks in public during a global pandemic is akin to allowing everyone to drive in a windowless car at 300 km/h in a hurricane without the need to wear a seatbelt,” the notice of application says.

It states that Li “is persistently worried and anxious that her community, her loved ones and herself may contract COVID-19.”

The application suggests masks should be required in “restaurants, bars, hospitals, public transit, retail stores, educational institutions and theatres, provided that there are appropriate exemptions available for infants and those who are unable to wear a mask.”

Concerns about asymptomatic spread 

During Phase 3, many services including movie theatres and churches have been allowed to reopen at reduced capacity, and the government is once again encouraging residents to travel within the province.

Right now, Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry generally recommends wearing a mask in situations like riding the bus, where physical distancing isn’t possible.

She has so far resisted calls to make masks mandatory in indoor spaces, saying it’s too difficult to enforce — especially when some people have legitimate reasons for not wearing a mask that may not be readily apparent to others.

Li’s application lays out the steady increase in new confirmed cases reported daily in recent weeks, and notes that B.C. has one of the lowest testing rates in the country.

Provincial officials have resisted making face masks mandatory in public spaces. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

“The prevalence of asymptomatic spread makes universal masking an essential means to stop the spread of COVID-19,” the application reads.

“The respondent endangers public health by failing to provide strong, clear and consistent recommendations in respect of the urgent need for widespread masking in public in-door environments where the risk of transmission is high.”

Li also questions the strategy of emphasizing physical distancing over wearing masks, suggesting it isn’t always possible to predict when someone might break the recommended two-metre barrier.

“When an individual realizes that someone has come too close to them, it may be too late to put on a mask and the transmission may have already occurred,” the application says.

Epidemiologist says masks are ‘common sense’

David Fisman, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Toronto, said he doesn’t know enough about B.C.’s internal politics to say whether legal action is the best course of action.

But he described more widespread mask use as “one of the easy wins” for getting the COVID-19 epidemic back under control.

“One of the frustrations with this disease is that we think about 50 per cent of all transmission of COVID happens in people before they have symptoms, and that’s a very difficult problem to deal with,” Fisman told CBC.

Everything from breathing to talking to singing and coughing produces droplets that could carry the novel coronavirus, and wearing masks can cut down significantly on the droplets that reach those around you.

As Henry revealed earlier this week, B.C.’s COVID-19 reproductive number has now jumped above one — which means each person who has the disease is now infecting more than one other person. That means we are creating conditions where the curve of infection is no longer flat.

“Masks should be a way to take that reproduction number down a few notches,” Fisman said. “It’s a common sense way to maintain economic activity while also doing easy stuff to prevent the virus from transmitting.”

The health minister has yet to file a response to Li’s application.

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