Stephen Ellis of Tides Canada made a good point in his column last week (“What’s the Plan B if we can’t get vaccine”).

He’s been pondering the pandemic in our pages for a few weeks now. Specifically, he was asking whether there is a Plan B to phase four of Emerging Wisely.

He notes that the GNWT says life won’t completely return to normal until an effective Covid-19 vaccine or treatment program is developed. But what if that takes a lot longer than the 12 to 18 months the plan envisions? Or is never developed at all?

That’s just one question that will have to be answered as the NWT and the world emerges from the pandemic lockdown and the economic downturn it precipitated. What role face masks will play is another.

They present the most recent minefield for public health officials and politicians trying to walk the fine line between safety and the public interest and the rights of the individual. It’s an example of the sensitive dynamic of imposing rules and restrictions on people: if officials push too hard, or the public thinks a rule is outrageous, it will be broadly ignored.

A recommendation to wear at least a non-medical mask in public in situations where social distancing isn’t possible is a safe course that allows officials to identify something that could have a positive impact on limiting the spread of the virus without them having to envision enforcing a mandatory order to do so, which the GNWT doesn’t have the resources to do.

The masks appear to cost between $5 and $20 each and present their own risks, including the potential to actually have the opposite effect if not worn properly or not cleaned frequently or well enough.

Public health officials seem to have come around to the fact that in a world where the virus is still spreading in places like Montreal and Toronto and still ravaging ill-prepared countries like Brazil and Russia, a non-medical mask may prevent the wearer from spreading droplets when breathing, coughing or sneezing. However small that chance may be, it’s better than nothing.

But that contrasts with what they were saying at first a couple months ago, when they were quick to point out the masks’ shortfalls when compared to the gold-standard N95 medical grade masks. This sort of flip-flopping sabotages credibility and deep-sixes the likelihood that the average person will take the advice and in this case, wear a mask in public at a time when every fibre in their being is screaming at them to cast away the bonds that have kept them cooped up all “spring” and get out and enjoy the sunshine.

The NWT has been fortunate so far that through responsible governance and aggressive public health orders, the novel coronavirus has been kept at bay here. But it’s hard to picture any number of joggers above the Slave River in Fort Smith or past the Snye in Fort Simpson huffing away or sun worshippers getting a tan through a repurposed dish towel.

Premier Caroline Cochrane was right to warn us not to get too comfy as some restrictions are lifted since the devil is still at the door as hundreds of new cases and dozens of deaths continue to be reported in Ontario and Quebec daily. Plus, the spectre of a possible or even likely second wave of infections in the fall and a third wave sometime after that has people in her position staying vigilant.

Cochrane and chief public health officer Dr. Kami Kandola have a delicate task ahead of them, and they will have to be delicate if they hope to keep the general public on the same page as they shape our new normal.

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