Backlash erupting to Sarnia’s mandatory mask bylaw

A composite photo showing signs from a protest rally at City Hall Thursday. About 60 people opposed to masks for various reasons assembled in response to a new Sarnia bylaw making them mandatory in indoor public spaces. Troy Shantz

Troy Shantz & George Mathewson

Business operator Lesley Medeiros says Sarnia’s mandatory face mask bylaw has made dealing with her customers nearly impossible.

Due to a hearing impairment, Lesley Medeiros relies on lip reading when serving customers at her Sarnia paint store.
Troy Shantz

The co-owner of Cameron Paint and Wallpaper has a hearing impairment that requires her to read lips.

“I feel excluded from the world now because I can’t go anywhere, and now I have an issue at work too,” said Medeiros, who owns two paint stores with husband Paul.

In general, Medeiros said, mask wearing is a good way to help control the spread of COVID-19.

“However, myself, I don’t want to go out in public because I don’t want to have to argue with somebody about why I should or shouldn’t wear a mask,” she said.

“Why should I have to tell every single store my personal medical history?”

Sarnia’s mask bylaw requires people, with exceptions, to wear a mask or face covering when in enclosed, publicly accessible spaces, including businesses and churches.

It took effect Friday amid a growing storm of controversy. Opponents say council’s decision is an example of government overreach that’s complicated the lives of people with preexisting health conditions, such as stroke, asthma and COPD.

They note Sarnia-Lambton already had one of the lowest COVID-19 rates in Ontario, and it got there without forcing people to wear a mask.

And they worry people who can’t wear a mask, though exempt, are being subjected to criticism and even abuse when out in public.

“It’s terrible,” said Mary-Lou LaPratte, a local resident who worked in health care more than 40 years.

“Why penalize a city that’s done so well at keeping COVID low with $1,000 fines (for non-compliance)?”

When council passed the bylaw in a 6-2 vote on July 27 it do so against the recommendation of some public health experts, including Dr. Sudit Ranade, Lambton County’s own Medical Officer of Health, LaPratte added.

“Too many people will be publicly shamed by people wearing masks. I’ve seen it happen already,” she said. “There will be more public shaming.”

Sarnia Coun. Margaret Bird, who voted again the bylaw, called the move an infringement on liberty.

“When it comes to mask-wearing, the provincial words are still ‘strongly encouraged’ and not mandatory,” she said.

Just three days after the vote, more than 60 people attended a hastily organized protest rally at City Hall on Thursday.

“We’re in Stage 3 now. Ontario’s opening up, not closing down. And Sarnia’s closing down,” said John Cote, who attended the demonstration.

One medical authority who supports mandatory face coverings is Dr. Michel Haddad, chief of staff at Bluewater Health.

“There are very few conditions that might make it difficult to wear a mask,” he told The Journal. “Almost 99% of people should be able to wear it.”

People with severe lung conditions could feel shortness of breath or claustrophobic in a mask, but they’re “few and far between,” he said.

Haddad said many Sarnia physicians are being asked for medical exemptions to the bylaw.

Those exempt include people with an underlying medical condition or disability that inhibits their ability to wear one, and children under five.

Lesley Medeiros said she won’t ask customers who enter her paint and wallpaper store why they aren’t wearing a mask.

“If you have an exemption, that should be all they have to ask you. If they’re lying about it, then they’re lying about it,” she said.

“There’s a reason they’re lying and I don’t need to know about it.”

Meanwhile, Sarnia Mayor Mike Bradley, who pushed hard for Sarnia’s bylaw, tried again this week to have Lambton County council pass a similar measure. After gauging the interest for a special meeting to revisit the issue, Bradley said Friday evening only one other mayor had changed their mind.

County council voted 13-4 on July 8 not to make masks mandatory.