City needs to better cater to those unable to wear face masks: report

A masked pedestrian walks by the Conversation sculpture on Stephen Avenue in Calgary while one of the statues is wearing a mask on Monday, August 10, 2020.

City officials need to help exempt Calgarians who can’t wear protective face masks and find themselves increasingly isolated during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a University of Calgary report.

While the document acknowledges the devices’ effectiveness in reducing infection and death, it says regulations making them mandatory in public spaces ignores those who can’t use them due to medical or disability reasons.

“Without inclusive design and clear communication, mandatory mask bylaws may produce numerous barriers to social re-entry for persons with disabilities,” states the study published by the U of C’s School for Public

“Such barriers include unequal access to face masks, social stigma, exclusion from public spaces, and disproportionate questioning or penalization.”

While she hasn’t heard of instance of people being unfairly turned away from businesses or being yelled at, report co-author Meaghan Edwards said anxiety is high among that portion of the population.

“‘I’ve heard anecdotally from my community work they feel sort of the cusp of that ‘because people are staring at me,’” said Edwards.

“A lot of these people are already isolated from the community so this can be debilitating.”

Earlier this month, Calgary and Edmonton made wearing masks mandatory in indoor public spaces and on transit, with smaller centres in Alberta adopting similar bylaws.

The UCP government has refused to implement province-wide mandatory use, saying such a law would be rejected by the public in areas with little or no COVID-19 infection.

The U of C report says people who genuinely can’t wear them, for reasons of anxiety, breathing impairment, dexterity challenges or sensitivity issues should be given greater consideration through an educational campaign to heighten awareness.

“Calgary, like many jurisdictions, has exempted persons with disabilities and their caretakers from the mandatory mask bylaw,” notes the study.

“However, members of the public, as well as businesses responsible for enforcing this bylaw, may not be informed about challenges to compliance for persons with disabilities.”

Edwards said including reminders on social media and mandatory mask signage that some people aren’t able to comply is important.

“It needs to be a caveat that for some people, it’s not possible to wear them,” she said.

It’s unclear what percentage of the population aren’t able to genuinely wear face masks, but Edwards said it would include a “significant portion” of the 20 per cent of the Canadian demographic that live with disabilities.

Those with the inability to wear masks are avoiding the use of public transit, she notes.

Some Calgarians who can and are willing to wear face masks, still aren’t able to afford them or find them, says the report.

But the report doesn’t recommend the city follow Edmonton’s example of issuing exemption cards on an honour system, a move criticized due to the widespread belief they were abused by those without any medical need for them.

The distribution of new cards was suspended Aug. 12 five days after the program’s launch.

Edwards said exemption cards aren’t a good alternative because many of those with disabilities and mobility issues can’t access their distribution points.

Showing doctors’ proof of medical exemption could be one way to allay rejection or discrimination, said Calgary emergency physician Joe Vipond, who’s strongly advocated for the use of face masks.

And he agreed with the study’s recommendation for a stronger educational component.

But Vipond said a massive compliance rate he estimates has seen mask use jump from 25 per cent to well over 90 per cent gives the city and society some leeway in how it enforces the regulation.

“Maybe we should be less suspicious and give people the benefit of the doubt,” he said.

“You don’t have to have 100 per cent of people wearing masks to have that population benefit.”

He said the backlash against exemption cards in Edmonton was a natural reaction to perceived unfairness.

“We have to figure out a way to mitigate that unfairness and that’s the role of politicians…that’s not easy because it’s been 1918 since we had such mandatory laws,” said Vipond.

The report suggests face shields could be an alternative in some cases is valid, he said, though such devices aren’t as effective as closer-fitting masks.

More to come……..

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