On July 7, U of T announced a new temporary measure that calls for the use of non-medical masks or face coverings in all public indoor spaces on university premises. The new policy went into effect on all three campuses on the same day as the announcement, and is mainly concerned with enclosed spaces that are accessible to the public where physical distancing may not be possible, including hallways, lobbies, elevators, and other common use facilities.
To comply with the policy, the university has ordered 250,000 non-medical, reusable masks and will distribute two to each student, staff, faculty member, and librarian for their own personal use. The university will provide more details about the distribution of masks later in the summer.
In a Q&A with U of T News published on July 10, Special Adviser to the President and Provost Vivek Goel, who is working on the university’s response to COVID-19, said that the university is following the same rules and exemptions as outlined in the City of Toronto bylaw regarding the use of masks, which mandates that establishments require the use of face coverings in enclosed spaces.
Goel commented that exceptions include people who have underlying medical conditions that prevent them from wearing face coverings, children under two years old, and people who are in areas that the public does not have access to or are behind physical barriers. Goel said that, as is the case with the bylaw, the university will not ask people to provide proof for exemption.
In addition to requiring masks, U of T is taking other steps to help slow the spread of COVID-19 on campus, including rearranging classrooms, frequently cleaning and disinfecting surfaces, installing thousands of hand sanitizer stations, and installing protective barriers wherever possible.
The FAQ response for the new policy explains that, since classrooms are being adjusted to meet physical distancing guidelines, masks won’t be required by students or instructors in classrooms. However, those who are more comfortable wearing a mask may choose to do so. Labs can be treated the same as classrooms when protective medical-grade masks are not required for the specific lab.
Rebecca Rooke, a PhD candidate at UTM who is researching molecular and behavioural biology, has been outspoken about the importance of taking strong measures to prevent the spread of the virus. She launched a petition calling for better health and safety practices at UTM — including mandatory mask-wearing — which received over 300 signatures before the university released its mask policy.
In an email to The Varsity, she wrote that, while U of T is taking responsible steps, “the university could and should be doing more,” and encouraged it to regularly update its policies in accordance with any scientific developments.
“The university has the responsibility of developing policies to protect the people that work and study at all of their campuses,” expressed Rooke, yet she still noted that the general U of T “community has a responsibility of adhering to these policies the best they can.”
The City of Toronto bylaw is set to expire in October unless renewed. As to how U of T will respond, Goel said, “we will have much more information at that time, and I have no doubt there will be changes in the future.”
Editor’s Note (July 25, 5:12 pm): The headline of this article has been updated to clarify that U of T’s mandatory mask policy does not apply to classrooms and labs.