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Newfoundland revives mandatory mask order

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It was fun while it lasted, but Newfoundland and Labrador is bringing back its mandatory mask mandate as of midnight Friday over concerns about high COVID-19 case counts outside the province and unsourced cases within its borders.

That includes the province’s K-12 system, in which masks have been primarily optional since the beginning of the school year.

As before, they will not be required for children in grades lower than Grade 4.

“We want to ensure that children can stay in school for their physical, emotional and mental health. There is no vaccine approved for children under the age of 12, so it’s up to all of us to keep the risk low,” Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Janice Fitzgerald told reporters in a previously unscheduled news briefing Friday.

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“Second, we need to ease the pressure on public health resources.”

Health Minister Dr. John Haggie said the strain of contact tracing on the system has been evident in recent weeks.

“We have had to recruit our second- and third-line tracers to help out our Public Health staff,” he said “We have seen a five-fold increase in the number of tests generated by the location-based advisories. We will be able to reduce that with the measures that Dr. Fitzgerald announced today.”

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Anecdotally, mask use in stores and other public spaces has remained high, but Fitzgerald said that’s not universally true.

The department has issued 60 possible exposure alerts since Aug. 27.

“Mandatory masking would significantly decrease the number of public advisories required, as many of these settings would be deemed low risk,” she said.

The mandatory mask order applies to all indoor venues, as it did before it was dropped on Aug. 10, including:

• Common areas of tourist accommodations.

• Places where government services are offered to the public.

• Places of worship and funeral homes.

• Cinemas, theatres and performing arts venues.

• Indoor entertainment venues.

• Any venue rented to hold gatherings.

• Museums, fitness centres and dance studios.

• Educational institutions.

In restaurants and bars, masks can be taken off while patrons to eat and drink, but must be worn when moving around.

All students and staff in grades 4-12 of the public school system have to wear masks, but Fitzgerald said she did not want to mandate them for the younger grades.

“I think children should wear masks if they’re able to do it,” she said. “The issue is that we know there’s children in the younger grades who may have some difficulty with that, and putting in the force of an order, we don’t want them to be not in compliance with the order because of issues that may be beyond their control or understanding.”

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• Premier Andrew Furey cleared up any confusion about pending vaccine passport system, saying the current situation in the country and the province calls for a stronger approach. “It would be mandatory for non-essential services, period.”

• Furey said he talked to Alberta Premier Jason Kenney Thursday, and offered any and all assistance needed as that province deals with an explosion in cases. That may include sending health workers to help out as they did with Toronto during the third wave of COVID-19.

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