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As mask law comes into effect, premier says $500 fines will be last resort

The territory currently has 17 active cases of COVID-19
Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Brendan Hanley speaks during a COVID-19 press conference in Whitehorse on Oct. 30. Masks became mandatory in the Yukon for anyone five years old and older as of Dec. 1 while in public spaces. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)

Masks are now the law of the land across the Yukon.

The policy, which requires masks to be worn by all Yukon residents five years and older in most indoor public spaces, came into effect on Dec. 1.

A full list of spaces is posted to the government’s website, but the policy broadly includes “indoor areas of a building that are intended for the common use of the whole public.”

The public places do not include schools, but school staff and students aged 10 and older are required to wear a non-medical mask on the school bus and in school commons areas.

“The evidence is more compelling by the week: masks do help us in situations where physical distancing may not be possible,” said Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Brendan Hanley.

The fine for refusing to wear a mask in an indoor space, refusing to leave or not complying with the direction of an enforcement officer is $500.

“We really want to see an educational campaign as opposed to an enforcement campaign, especially in the first couple of days. We know that Yukoners want to do the right thing,” said Premier Sandy Silver. “The primary means of compliance will be through education, awareness and support.”

Silver said fines will only be handed out in “egregious scenarios of non-compliance.”

The government advises that “people who are unable to wear a mask due to psychological, behavioral or other pre-existing health conditions will be exempt from wearing a mask.”

In the legislature, MLA Patti McLeod commended the education-first approach and said she is also concerned that people with exemptions “are not targeted by harassment, either by the public or by enforcement officers.”

“Enforcement should be the last resort. We urge the government not to be too heavy-handed in the implementation of this measure,” she said.

Speaking to reporters, Silver said the government currently does not require any documentation to prove a medical-based exemption. Enforcement officers have the power to lay fines, but will be relying on individuals to tell the truth.

Plan for vaccination

Opposition MLAs in the legislative assembly were also seeking more details on the vaccine distribution, including a copy of the plan for rolling out the vaccine.

Silver said more details won’t be available until a vaccine is obtained and approved by the federal government.

“Many details are still being finalized, including the number of doses that will be available and the timelines for rolling out the vaccines across Canada,” Silver said.

Silver said in the First Ministers Meeting attended with other premiers and the prime minister, the territories emphasized “equitable access” to the vaccines and inclusion of risk factors such as long-term care residents, elder populations, immunocompromised individual healthcare workers, and Indigenous remote and northern communities.

“Minister Pauline Frost and her fellow health ministers, along with federal, provincial and territorial officials are working together to advance a vaccine strategy,” he said.

Current case counts

In addition to clarifying that Santa Claus and his reindeer have been cleared for access to the territory on Dec. 24 and 25, Hanley also encouraged Yukoners to start paying more attention to the suggested guidelines the government has put out to reduce spread.

As of Dec. 2, the territory currently has 20 active cases. On Dec. 1, Hanley said all recent cases are recovering well and two cases are currently in hospital. Contact tracing continues, but there is currently no evidence of community spread.

On Nov. 29 a public exposure notice was issued for Baked Café & Bakery for Nov. 21 between 12:30 p.m. and 2 p.m.

Along with the wellness centre at the Canada Games Centre, other places listed in the exposure notice include: Better Bodies for Nov. 1 to Nov. 18 from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.; Sakura Sushi for Nov. 20 from 5 p.m. to closing; and Whitehorse Transit on Nov. 18 and 19.

In order to avoid more cases, Hanley said households must begin getting stricter on limiting their bubbles to 15 or less people.

“It’s vital that for the next few weeks, we hunker down and reduce our outings and social gatherings outside of the household,” he said.

He also reminded Yukoners of the need to stay home when sick, and said despite no lockdown, people should work from home when possible to reduce the number of people in workplaces.

“Many of our recent cases have arisen from transmission within a work setting. A sick staff member goes to work, infects a coworker, who then goes home and infects a family member, and so on,” Hanley said.

“If you can do so without disrupting workflow or service to others please work from home,” he added. “I ask that employers consider ways that they can support having some employees work from home where possible.”

Hanley acknowledged that maintaining small bubbles is harder in shared households, where adults may be living together as roommates or multi-generational families may be sharing a home.

“There’s no doubt that in a shared household where you have, for instance, a group of young adults who are working in different places, you’re already looking at a potentially risky scenario,” he said.

“We haven’t spelled out every detail in the guidance, but I think it’s really being aware of the potential interactions that go beyond the household,” he said. “The preferred way would be to keep that bubble really small, whether that’s just the household, maybe one or two other close friends, and then and then that’s it.”

With files from Stephanie Waddell

Contact Haley Ritchie at