Opinion: Clear as mud

By Mike Williscraft

In the end, it took about 20 emails to get to the point of no point, really, other than to be referred on to seek a legal opinion for any business operator who wants to know what they can or should do regarding Niagara Region’s mask bylaw.

As I noted a few weeks ago, some soft wording and seemingly purposeful lack of clarity at points has done nothing but lead to confusion for many.

It is easy to understand why this is all happening, and it is difficult to place any blame – if any were merited – as nobody has 100 per cent correct answers in this COVID-19 mess. What we do know for sure, is nobody wants to be missing a chair when the music stops. Staff don’t want to, or can’t, provide clean, direct opinion. The Region’s legal counsel, Donna Gibbs, was helpful providing contact information for anyone to obtain 30 minutes of free legal opinion, but the sad part is that that may even be necessary.

Upwards of a dozen inquiries came to me in the last 10 days and about another half-dozen stories or trainwreck stories of people teeing off on unsuspecting staff when they were reminded masks were mandatory.

There are so many grey areas in the bylaw it is downright silly. The whole public space vs space which is publicly accessible is one.

As noted in this week’s front-page story, the core of any debate on this topic is not the merits of mask use itself – although there is an element of ‘no mask’ out there – the problem businesses are having is communicating the bylaw requirements to customers.

Now, if the mask bylaw is of no consequence to you and you adhere to it willingly, you will absolutely wonder what the possible fuss is about.

Well, while you are out and about, watch what is happening around you. It would be rare to go into Sobeys or the Superstore and not see customers who are maskless. All they have to do is say they have a medical exemption and they pass to enter and shop.

No proof is necessary.

It is quite likely everyone knows someone who cheats this system. It is WIDE open to abuse and everyone knows it.

For that reason, I also get business owners calling saying they have had customers see others come into establishments to shop, maskless. The masked shoppers simply drop the goods they were about to buy and exit the store. Now. maybe they return to buy later, but maybe they don’t.

This is just another risk of doing business which merchants have had handed to them.

Businesses were never intended to be bylaw enforcement, no matter what anyone says.

It is very easy to sit back and outline these things are just a simple matter of policy when you are behind a desk at regional HQ, as done in this comment from Daryl Barnhart, executive officer for Reg Chair Jim Bradley.

“Businesses enforce many other similar policies such as limiting the number of youth in a store at one time, requiring certain dress code or charging cover. In these cases, just like the masks, the business is choosing with whom they do transactions. If a business has decided to not allow any exemptions, they are well within their rights to make that choice.”

The problem in trying to connect these dots is none of them allow the ignoring of the bylaw by an exemption which does not need to be produced. As well, any potential infraction in the examples cited would be visible for all to see, not to be debated, unlike someone who could have a breathing issue.

Seriously? Who in their right mind would want to question or force someone with a breathing issue to wear a mask? Nobody. Ever.

Magnifying the issue is the invisible nature of any condition which merits – without question – a person’s need to not wear a mask.

Like many things which can get all balled up on social media, the mask issue is a non-issue for 99.9 per cent of Ontarians. But that .01 can rattle on endlessly and cause unneeded and unwanted distress for local businesses which are just trying to do the right thing.

As stated weeks ago, regional council should have worked through that bylaw in more detail, ironed out working issues and at least attempted to take potential heat off every single business in the Region just trying to survive.

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