On mask mandates during COVID-19

Dear Mayor Holder,

As is now customary, I hope you and yours have stayed safe and comfortable during the global predicament we currently find ourselves in. I haven’t seen you in quite some time, at least not in “real life”, as I have been in isolation since this all began. This is because, as you no doubt can guess, it is unlikely I would survive contact with COVID-19 because of muscular dystrophy.

I am writing today to ask for your help in keeping me safe.

While the obvious solution is for me to not leave the safety of my own home, every day this protective barrier is perforated by the arrival and close proximity of my support work team, upon whom my bodily function depends. Every day, every shift, these men and women put their own health at risk in an effort to keep me alive. But they also risk bringing the infection into my house should they contract the virus on their way here. Like living my own personal zombie film, every morning I awake to the macabre thought of: “Will this be the day I let the wrong one in? Is this the day one of my staff accidentally kills me?”

I am not alone in this dread—vulnerable Londoners of all ages, in every ward, have been left to man the barricades in isolation against an infectious flood that threatens to drown them. Perhaps note that while you are fortunate to own your own home, for many others who don’t the risks are even higher.

We’re scared. We’re frustrated. And at times, it can feel as though we are in this alone.

But there are ways you can help us fight for our lives. Transitioning services to contactless delivery and limiting indoor gatherings of people helps. Efforts through the Mayor’s Taskforce to connect individuals and agencies with PPE manufacturers and distributors helps. Mandating the use of masks on the LTC helps. Ensuring accessible and distanced access to sidewalks and foot paths helps. And over the next few days you will have the opportunity to help us in another way: by scaling up the percentage of Londoners regularly wearing masks in public.

There is a growing body of research indicating mask usage can help reduce the spread of the virus, especially when distancing cannot (or, by choice, will not) be achieved. Similarly, I have yet to see indication that widespread mask use has increased risk, noting of course proper vs improper use, washing/sanitation, reduction in social distancing due to perception of safety, etc. Mandating masks now can help to naturalize their use before they become urgently necessary in a second wave. As more people wear masks, more are likely to adopt the practice (we are herd animals, after all). Most important from my perspective is that increased mask use can protect those working hard to support the needs of those most susceptible to the virus—people like myself.

Weighing the pros and cons of mandating mask use, I am frankly shocked we are even having this debate: if wearing one might reduce spread and offers no overt risk, why wouldn’t we mandate public mask wearing for the duration of the pandemic?

Some may argue that mandating masks infringes on their personal freedom, to which I respond: the law already dictates you have to wear clothing outside…do you oppose this restriction as well? Facetiousness aside, there are tons and tons of examples of “restrictions” of personal liberty when the safety/lives of others are at risk. Such is the price we pay to live in the relative safety of society.

Some may argue it is impossible to enforce a mask mandate, to which I respond: we have countless bylaws, some with strict penalties, that are difficult to enforce but still serve a fundamental public good. See: building permits for decks or overnight residential parking in the winter. People “get away” with breaking these rules all the time, but by mandating them we increase potential compliance while also having a mechanism to deal with egregious noncompliance.

Some may argue that there are simply too many intricacies to craft an appropriate legislation. Or, that without direct and overt order from our public health unit, it is inappropriate to move forward. In my humble opinion, the ascendancy of “complications” preventing mask mandates (be they in execution or jurisdiction) act as convenient cover to avoid an uncomfortable truth in London, Ontario—we are far too comfortable deeming fundamental needs of disabled people to freely and safely participate as citizens (from accessing parks to accessing public transit) to be extraneous, superfluous, or just too darn arduous. We routinely throw up our hands and say “it’s just too hard” when confronted by the systemic, environmental and ideological barriers that trapped disabled Londoners within our homes long before COVID-19. What we, disabled Londoners, hear is “this doesn’t affect me and, therefore, is not important”. But, of course, you were not elected to represent the voice and needs of only some of your constituents—your mandate is to represent all citizens of London and, perhaps, to be especially cognizant of the voices that are routinely missed around the horseshoe.

Please do the (hard) work to develop a functional mask mandate. Please err on the side of caution. Please do whatever you can to save my life.

Jeff Preston
Ward 10 Resident

By Jeffrey Preston

Born with a rare neuromuscular myopathy, Jeff has spent his life dedicated to advocating for himself and others with disabilities. With a PhD in Media Studies from Western University, Jeff's research focuses on the representation of disability in popular and digital culture. Jeff is currently an Assistant Professor of Disability Studies at King's University College @ Western University in London, ON.