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Surprise! Mandatory masks are back.

Rob Shaw: “Apparently, everything changed. But also didn’t change, according to Dr. Henry, because it was always going to be this way. Maybe. Sort of.”
Health, safety remain focus for new school year
BC Government Flickr

Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry stunned most of the province Tuesday when she abruptly announced the return of mandatory indoor masks.

That the news came 15 minutes into a seemingly unrelated press conference on back-to-school preparations was only part of the surprise.

Henry had also spent the past few days downplaying the need for masks: first four days earlier after she was spotted without one at a B.C. Lions game and said it wasn’t necessary because those posing for selfies with her were vaccinated; and then the previous day’s press conference on mandatory vaccinations in which she said mandatory masks were best left to target communities with high transmission rates.

There was no warning or hint Henry had changed her mind up until she abruptly unveiled the new direction on Tuesday. The province did nothing to lay the groundwork for the change, or even raise the possibility publicly.

The media advisory advertising Henry’s event solely focused on a back-to-school plan for K-12 students and those attending post-secondary school in September.

The press release after the event began contained only one sentence on the issue, buried in the accompanying backgrounder: “The mask guidance will also be supported by a provincial health order on mask wearing.”

It took almost an hour for the government to issue a second release, this time on what would surely become the dominant topic of the day, well after it had already exploded into a confusing flurry on social media.

Henry appeared surprised that everyone else was surprised she’d changed her mind, fewer than 24 hours after she appeared to dismiss the idea of mandatory masks.

She struggled with the premise of several questions that directly challenged her on masks: What had changed, and why?

“We know that people who are immunized particularly in outdoor spaces, keeping distanced, that risk of transmission is very very low,” she said.

“We also know as we move into the fall we’re starting to congregate more in indoor spaces and right now we know this virus is transmitting in some of those indoor public spaces. So this is an additional measure.

“We’ve said all along masks are one of the additional measures we need in certain circumstances.”

The inference was: We always told you masks might be coming back, and so none of this should be a surprise.

That might be the sentiment among BC public health officials, but out in the real world the public was still quite enthusiastically embracing the idea of going maskless, and hoping to remain so.

Yes, daily case counts were rising, but Dr. Henry told people not to worry so much about that metric, because the main indicators of concern were hospitalizations and intensive care unit stays.

And yes, those have been rising too, but again, Dr. Henry said it was manageable if the province continued with its impressive vaccination results.

Then, apparently, everything changed. But also didn’t change, according to Henry, because it was always going to be this way.


Sort of.

You are forgiven if you find all this confusing and contradictory.

There’s two possibilities why and how this all went sideways.

Either Henry has known for days she was bringing mandatory indoor masks back, and when directly asked about it several times, deliberately danced around the idea to keep the surprise under wraps.

Or, this was a last-minute scramble in response to concerning increases in case counts.

Either way, the result was a mess.

The core education announcement didn’t go much better.

Here too the province’s messaging and actions failed to match.

“The most important thing we can do to protect (school-aged children) is to make sure the adults around them are immunized, whether that’s parents, or guardians or the school setting as well,” said Henry. “So it is important for us to do that.”

But she refused to make vaccinations mandatory for teachers and education staff.

The contradiction between identifying the single best thing we can do to protect school kids, and then not pushing us to do it, was jarring.

B.C. took a major step forward in the fight against COVID-19 this week by making vaccines mandatory for a host of non-essential services like restaurants and sporting events. But then it took two large steps backwards by bungling its launch of masks and back-to-school plans.

Let's hope things level out soon. We’re still counting on Dr. Henry to get us through this.