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UPDATED: Mask-wearing--The growing call for face protection

mask wearing
Jennifer Rading sells masks featuring Swarovski crystals at the Bountiful Market in Edmonton. PHOTO: Gary Poignant

The COVID-19 coverup is evolving in Alberta.

Mask usage is constantly shifting as the decision to wear - or not wear - is in constant flux.

In some cases, there's no option. Calgary recently made masks mandatory in all public indoor spaces, while in Edmonton, face coverings are now required inside all City buildings, amenities, attractions and on transit. As COVID-19 cases increase across Alberta, Edmonton is set to expand that directive further, and neighbouring municipalities could follow the City's lead requiring masks be worn in all indoor public places.

Will Albertans comply? A recent national survey shows 25 per cent of Canadians never wear a face covering. Is it an issue of discomfort? Of not wanting to be ordered to do something? A couple of mask vendors at a south Edmonton market suggest the type of face wear could make all the difference.

"If masks look better, people are more inclined to wear them," said Sheila Robicheau, 69, a clothes-maker who switched to mask-making once COVID-19 hit Alberta in mid-March.

Selling her own colourful cotton masks at The Bountiful Market on 97 St. in Edmonton, Robicheau said sales have been steady since she returned to the market in early July.

"Masks reduce the risks (of transmitting COVID), and I think people realize that more nowadays. People are not as afraid to wear them," said Robicheau, adding she notices more people covering up here since masks became mandatory in Toronto.

Of the 20 million free disposable masks being distributed in Alberta, (mostly through fast food restaurants), one batch is going to long-term care and supportive living seniors facilities, community groups, social service organizations, libraries, court houses and places of worship. First Nations communities, Metis settlements and municipalities are also getting them. Four million masks are being provided to 20 transit systems across Alberta, including Calgary and Edmonton, to be used by transit riders.

Back at the market, Natalie Warnes, 26, said "there was a bit of a stigma at first, but most of the people who buy masks do care how it looks." Warnes said her masks--two layers of cotton and a filter pocket--are selling more to younger people than older.

A national Abacus survey of 1,500 Canadian adults showed a third of Canadians always wear a mask when they enter an indoor public place. Men are significantly less likely to wear masks than women, the survey said.

The survey also showed there would be little opposition - just 14 per cent - if the government made mask-wearing mandatory. Yet, that small minority opposing masks is vocal, as evidenced by recent anti-mask rallies in Edmonton and Calgary (and across the country). Waving placards with messages like 'My body, my choice,' it's enough of a push back to concern the business sector and government. “My pitch to those folks, if they're upset about mask usage, the alternative will inevitably be more widespread suspensions of economic activity if we get a second outbreak," said Premier Jason Kenney.

Elaine Doucette of Bountiful Market, said the numbers of those wearing masks continues to grow.  "Since re-opening, it has gone from 20 per cent of customers wearing masks to about 40 percent. Some people have asked vendors why they aren't wearing a mask, but I've reminded them that we are complying with COVID-19 protocols and that masks are not required by all vendors."

At The Rustic Hutch just east of Calgary, owner Vicki Schoeneman said most of her customers are bare-faced when they walk inside her small home decor store.

“I’ve got a compromised immune system, so sometimes I have to stand outside," she said. “I don't need to be sick, and by me wearing a mask I’m showing others I value their health, too. I think its mutual respect."

Findings from a recent University of Alberta study conducted by Dr. Heather Young-Leslie and PhD candidate Doris Zhang show there is a shift in support for mask-wearing.

"Initially, people believed masks provided a false sense of security, and they should be reserved for front-line medical workers. Now, public use of face masks has become much more prevalent in Canada," said Zhang.

Canmore-based artist and now mask-maker Patrick LaMontagne, who has seen surprising demand for his animal-look masks, said "because the pandemic is uncharted territory, people are scared, things are uncertain, plans have been canceled and jobs are on the line. People are lashing out from fear, to try to control whatever they can. The argument on wearing or not wearing a mask seems to be how some are expressing that."

"Wearing a mask doesn't trample on your rights, it doesn't indicate blind obedience to authority, nor does it mark you as a liberal or a conservative. It simply says that you're a part of a community and if there is a danger, however slight, you're going to do your part not to make it worse. It's telling your neighbours that you're looking out for them. And if we all look a little silly now and then by wearing a mask, at least we're doing it together, for a good reason."