TO mask, or not to mask, that is the question, with apologies to English playwright William Shakespeare, for paraphrasing his famous soliloquy from Hamlet.
The latest Victorian Department of Health and Human Services rules on face mask-wearing, announced by State Premier Dan Andrews on Sunday December 6. 2020, in themselves seem reasonably straightforward.
However, judging by the number of people who are still wearing masks outside in open public places or inside where there’s obviously plenty of room and not many people about indicates there is continuing community uncertainty about what to do.
Some people are choosing to wear their masks whenever they are out just for simplicity as much as reassurance, while others are electing to err on the side of caution, especially those who feel vulnerable because of their health or age.
Currently the rules state that everyone 12 years and over or without a valid and lawful exemption like illness or disability must carry a mask at all times and to wear it if they can’t maintain a 1.5-metre distance from other people.
Masks must also be worn on public transport including taxis and ride-share vehicles, in supermarkets, and in places like enclosed shopping centres and the individual shops within them, and large department, hardware, furniture and electronics stores.
Some facilities and organisations, such as hospitals and medical centres, aged care services, and ports, require face masks to be worn as part of their COVID Safe plans.
Face masks are “strongly recommended” but are not mandatory now in circumstances where people are unable to stay more than 1.5 metres away from others while out in public, for example, at transport stops, on busy walkways, and in shops and queues.
At present when a mask is necessary, the mask itself must still be of a fitted design that covers the nose and mouth. Face shields, bandanas, scarves or/ loose snoods or neck gaiters on their own are not considered “sufficient” as face coverings.
Washable or single-use masks made with three layers of fabric are recommended by the Chief Health Officer, as this type “provides the best protection for you and others”.
Eastern Victoria MLC Harriet Shing has become somewhat of a regional guru on masks and when and how they should be donned during the COVID-19 pandemic.
She has been regularly heard on ABC Gippsland radio explaining and interpreting the Government’s constantly changing COVID-19 restrictions and their associated mask, social distancing and hygiene directives during the course of the pandemic.
Ms Shing said keeping up with each alteration of the COVID-19 requirements since the time the pandemic was declared has been like “undertaking a series of exams.
“The COVID-19 situation has been so complex and changeable, and people have needed access to clear, accurate information throughout the pandemic,” she said.
“I appreciate that there has been a degree of ambiguity in some of the information the community has received and I’m glad I’ve been able to give practical explanations about what’s required.
“Sometimes I‘ve had to take questions on notice and find out what the correct answer is, but now, at last we’re starting to see a change in the limitations as to how we work, move around and gather,” Ms Shing said.
“There are still some restrictions of course, but the first thing to remember is you must have a mask with you at all times unless you are a child under 12 or are exempted.
“Generally, you don’t have to wear a mask unless in a specific situation, such is if you are in an enclosed area or among large numbers of strangers, say, in a shopping mall, a supermarket or a Bunnings,” she said.
“In small businesses, like cafes and shops in towns like Foster, other than the supermarkets, there is no need to wear a mask unless you are immune-suppressed or -compromised, and unless an individual business asks you to do so.
“It’s up to each business to have a COVID Safe plan, and business owners are entitled to place a sign in their front window requesting that masks be worn inside their premises,” Ms Shing said.
“People can apply the rationale that if there are large groups of people making contact tracing harder, then wearing a mask is an extra protection.
“Wearing a mask has been shown to reduce the risk of transmission by two-thirds.
“People can of course make their own choice as to whether they wear a mask in public, even when and where masks are not mandatory, though a mask is always recommended if they’re sick or vulnerable,” she said.
“This is something I urge community members to be kind, caring and compassionate about, and for everyone to continue using their common sense, so we all can keep coming through what has been a incredibly difficult period.”