Police are encouraging people with medical exemptions to the province’s mask mandate to carry a doctor’s note, but a disability advocate says no one should be asked to prove that they are disabled.
B.C. RCMP spokesperson Staff Sergeant Janelle Shoihet said the primary goal of officers is to encourage the public to comply with the health order that requires mask-wearing in most indoor public places and all retail stores.
She said most of the conflict over mask-wearing has arisen because people simply refuse to wear one, not because people with legitimate exemptions are being challenged.
“If you have a medical exemption, we would ask that you carry a note from your doctor. You should be prepared to support those claims,” she said.
Categories of exemption include children under the age of 12, people who cannot remove a mask on their own and people with health conditions or physical, cognitive or mental impairments that make them unable to wear a mask.
Shoihet said if someone reported for violating the mask order says they have an exemption, officers will look for alternatives to issuing a fine, such as offering a few days to produce a medical note to avoid a $230 ticket. “We’ve been dealing with the pandemic since March, so there should have been capability for you to have visited your doctor and your doctor to provide that medical note.”
But Wendy Cox, executive director of the Victoria Resource Disability Centre, said people shouldn’t have to prove they’re disabled and unable to wear a mask.
“I would just encourage everybody to always approach with curiosity and kindness. Never assume somebody is intentionally not wearing a mask because they want to be different, or they’re taking a stand or they’re anti-mask,” she said.
If somebody says they’re unable to wear a mask, “you kind of got to take their word for it. You know, I mean, you can’t ask for proof,” Cox said.
While she thinks the mandatory mask rule is for the greater good, Cox said it adversely affects those unable to wear a mask.
She has talked to people in the disability community who say they’ve received dirty looks or hostile reactions from other customers, but hasn’t heard of retail or hospitality staff denying service.
Many of the reasons why someone is unable to wear a mask can be invisible, Cox said, including anxiety, tactile sensitivities and trauma.
Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said Wednesday the mask mandate is intended to target anti-maskers, and she’s concerned that people who cannot wear a mask will be treated poorly.
“I’m particularly concerned about people with disabilities that may not always be readily apparent, and I know that they feel very vulnerable,” Henry said.
She urged the public to have compassion when they see someone not wearing a mask. “We cannot deny them services, but we need to find alternative ways of safely providing the services they need. That may mean providing curbside, online services, or arranging for people who cannot wear masks to come at a time when appropriate distances can be maintained.”
Dr. Jaron Easterbrook, a family physician in Saanich, previously told the Times Colonist that people who have experienced trauma around wearing masks, such as military members who have worn gas masks, can struggle to put on a face covering.
In those cases, he works with patients to become more comfortable wearing a mask, starting with looking at it on a table, then getting closer to it until a patient is able to put it on.
“Just the idea of putting something on their face is so traumatic that we’re having to slowly work through the process of getting them used to that in a non-confrontational setting,” he said.
Carissa Ropponen, manager of resource development and communications at the Victoria Sexual Assault Centre, said wearing a mask can trigger memories of abuse for survivors of sexual violence, especially those whose mouths were covered during an attack. The stress of the pandemic can also amplify past trauma, she said.
Emergency Management B.C., the provincial agency responsible for COVID-19 enforcement information, said in an email that businesses are not the enforcers of the mask order. “It is their role to inform people visiting their business what the mask requirement is, while being mindful that some people have legitimate reasons for not being able to wear a mask.”