Colourful non-medical masks
Masks made by Miyako Ballesteros, co-owner of The Ikebana Shop. Photo: Twitter

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When Vel Oakes goes out, she doesn’t wear a mask. She said she’s gotten “some odd looks” if she’s standing in line waiting to get into a store — and she worries that as mask-wearing becomes more normalized, that’s going to get worse.

Oakes described herself as “an asthmatic with additional breathing issues, especially in muggy weather, who is also claustrophobic in certain situations.”

She said, “Sometimes I cough. I have a few lung issues. People cough for other reasons [besides COVID-19]. It’s pollen season so I may sneeze! I know if I put a mask on I’m going to hyperventilate and someone’s going to have to call an ambulance. And I’m a big girl. If I pass out, you’re not getting me up easy.”

Oakes is not one of those people who refuses to wear a mask on principle, or who has some misguided sense that wearing one impinges on personal liberties. Her concerns are more practical.

Headshot of a woman with glasses and long hair, wearing a red sweater
Vel Oakes. Photo contributed.

“My issue is mainly about masks and how not everyone can wear them,” she said. Oakes, who lives in Dartmouth North, said she usually gets around on foot. “I am 20 to 25 minutes from No Frills. If I were to walk that today with the 80% humidity I’m already going to be panting. If you then expect me to put a mask on, and from what I’ve read you should wash your hands, put your mask on and then go out — I can’t walk 25 minutes in a mask.”

Wearing or not wearing masks is not an all or nothing proposition for people with asthma. Someone may be perfectly comfortable wearing one for activities like shopping, but not be able to cover their face for more intense activities, such as exercise.

But asthma “creates a unique kind of claustrophobia around breathing and enclosures,” said Shawna Henderson, who heads the firm Blue House Energy, which does online training for the building industry. (Disclosure: I have done a bit of freelance work for the company.) That claustrophobic feeling has not stopped Henderson from going out, but it does create anxiety.

“It’s uncomfortable for me… but I’m not stopped from wearing one. It’s more like an inconvenience that I have to deal with. Leaves me a bit anxious after wearing it for a few hours,” she said.

As stores, restaurants, bars, and other businesses begin to open again, expect to see a lot more masks being worn by patrons.

On Twitter, the downtown Halifax clothing store Biscuit wondered why masks are not being made mandatory in Nova Scotia.

Tweet asking why masks are not mandatory

(I contacted the store for an interview, but did not get a reply.)

Do businesses in Nova Scotia have the right to compel customers to wear masks?

In an email, Department of Health and Wellness spokesperson Heather Fairbairn repeated the advice that people consider wearing non-medical masks in places where distancing is difficult. She added, “Businesses have the right to set policies for their operations. Operators should be aware that wearing a mask may not be appropriate for some individuals and, in such cases, consider alternatives, where possible.”

A follow-up question on whether businesses have the right to prevent entry from people not wearing masks went unanswered.

Oakes, who said she’s had a lung infection “and I don’t want to have another one,” is concerned she may find herself barred from shopping at some point.

On its COVID-19 information page, the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission says:

Some restrictions, such as those imposed by the Public Health officials on those who have recently returned from international travel are reasonable and not discriminatory. However, depending on the circumstances, the Act’s grounds of place of origin, ethnic origin and race may trigger human rights obligations under the Act, if one is acting outside of the Public Health direction.

The page says nothing specifically about masks, but it does note that:

The Act protects against discrimination based on 18 grounds, whether perceived or otherwise, including disability, ethnic origin, place of origin, race, and an irrational fear of contracting an illness or disease. COVID-19 is not isolated to people of any particular ethnic origin, place of origin or race.

Is refusing entry to to someone asymptomatic who says they cannot wear a mask for medical reasons discriminatory? The answer is not clear.

Human Rights Commission spokesperson Jeff Overmars said in an email:

This is a complex scenario so there’s no blanket answer.

Much depends on the public health and occupational health and safety guidelines each business will be guided by.

Overmars added:

Factors would include whether the individual complainant was symptomatic when refused service for example.

The Commission encourages any individual who feels they have been discriminated against to contact us to discuss the details of their situation so we can provide informed guidance.

In the United States, Costco requires most staff and shoppers to wear a face mask. A statement from president and CEO Craig Jelinek on the company website says:

To help protect our employees and members, effective May 4, 2020, all Costco members and guests must wear a face covering that covers the mouth and nose, at all times while at Costco. This requirement does not apply to children under the age of 2 or to individuals who are unable to wear a face covering due to a medical condition.

The Costco Canada website also offers a message from Jelinek, but it’s different:

A few examples of how we are taking care of our employees include: premium pay; paid time off for higher-risk employees; protective masks and symptom screenings; and remote work for our office employees.

Nothing about customers — sorry, members — wearing non-medical masks. (One of the results of living next to a behemoth like the US is that everyone I spoke to for this story thought Costco Canada already requires masks.)

Ferdinand Ballesteros co-owns the Ikebana Shop — which mostly sells goods imported from Japan — with his wife, Miyako Ballesteros. Since the business shut its doors for the pandemic, Miyako has been busy sewing masks “all day” Ferdinand said, which they sell “at cost, really… We’re not trying to make money from this pandemic.”

He said the shop is “never really the market leader for anything” and that he and Miyako are not rushing to reopen on Friday, June 5. Instead, they are going to wait and see how things go elsewhere first.

While they are still figuring out the protocols to use when the store does open, Ballesteros said the couple have no plans to ask people to wear masks.

“I don’t know if it’s legal to impose that on people. I don’t know the rules. Is it an infringement of rights? Is it discrimination?” he said. “I guess we will say we encourage you to come with a mask on.”

The Ballesteros family came to Halifax in 2007 from Japan, where, Ferdinand, said, in contrast to here, wearing masks has long been just a normal part of everyday life.

“In Japan it’s very, very accepted. There’s no stigma. If you wear a mask it’s not strange at all. Before this, people used to wear masks during pollen season and it’s really accepted — and maybe expected — that you wear a mask if you have a cold, so you don’t give it to other people,” he said.

Ballesteros said that he got “some pushback” when he first posted images of the masks Miyako was selling on social media, from people who were opposed to their use. That disappeared after Canada’s chief public health officer, Theresa Tam, endorsed the use of non-medical masks to protect others in situations where distancing is difficult.

Last week, Tam urged Canadians to wear masks in part to protect those who cannot wear them, and not to judge those who can’t.

In a a series of tweets, she wrote:

This is even more important because some people may not be able to wear a face covering safely, including people who may be at risk of severe outcomes from #COVID19. #ProtecttheVulnerable #HelpOthers #DontJudge

If you can wear a mask safely, this is where YOU come in to #ProtecttheVulnerable, like people who experience difficulty breathing & are advised not to wear a mask that could exacerbate their condition. #COVID19 #DontJudge #KindnessMatters

Or others, for whom a mask or face covering is not recommended because they would have difficulty removing it on their own, like children < 2 years of age & people suffering an illness/disability that makes safe removal difficult. #COVID19 #DontJudge

Headshot of Theresa Tam
Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer. Photo: Government of Canada

In its guidance on masks, the Pan-Canadian Public Health Network says:

Non-medical masks or cloth face coverings should not be placed on young children under age 2, anyone who has trouble breathing, or is unconscious, incapacitated or otherwise unable to remove the mask without assistance.

Meanwhile, the Lung Association echoes the guidance on wearing masks to protect others. In an email, communications and marketing manager Marketa Stastna said her organization recommends “that people wear face masks when physical distancing is not possible or challenging,” which is in line with the public health guidelines.

But she didn’t say people with conditions such as asthma should avoid wearing masks, instead urging them to avoid situations where they might need one. She wrote, “Those who experience anxiety or stress or shortness of breath due to wearing a face mask should try to avoid situations that require them.”

Stastna added that, “as of now, there is no evidence that wearing a face mask will exacerbate underlying lung conditions.”

Vel Oakes has been watching all this with trepidation. She said she wants to protect others, but she also has to think of her own well-being.

“I can see it [obligatory mask-wearing] coming and I personally think it’s wrong. I have respect for my fellow people around me. I’ve done my best to stay six feet away. I’ve done my best to keep my butt at home as much as possible, I cough and sneeze into my elbow. I wash my hands. But I’m worried about what happens when things open up more and more and suddenly those of us who can’t wear masks are stigmatized more and more.”

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Philip Moscovitch is a freelance writer, audio producer, fiction writer, and editor of Write Magazine.

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  1. On Costco, I was there last week and they have an employee offering masks to those coming in not wearing them, and a sign up recommending people wear them, However they are not required.