Equality and Justice
For People With Disabilities

The Mandatory Masks By-Law in Ottawa

Published on October 14, 2020

The Mandatory Masks By-Law in Ottawa

Tiffany Wong, University of Ottawa Law Student

Current as of October 13, 2020. Please note that due to the evolving COVID-19 situation, information in this article may be subject to change. For further updates, please consult the official City of Ottawa weblinks provided below. Please note that this article should not be taken as legal advice.

This year has been an unusual time as the global pandemic continues to persist and countries try their best to control the spread of COVID-19. The City of Ottawa has passed the “Temporary Mandatory Mask By-law” that mandates the use of masks in enclosed public spaces to prevent the spread of the virus. This has raised concerns for people who experience a sensation of restricted air flow. Although evidence shows that masks do not decrease oxygen intake, the sensation of restricted air flow can be problematic for people with disabilities. Ottawa’s by-law allows for some exemptions to the Mask By-Law including, but not limited to, for individuals with a medical condition, such as breathing or cognitive difficulties, that prevent them from safely wearing a mask, and anyone who is unable to put or remove their mask without help. Those who are deaf or hard of hearing may also experience challenges if they rely on lip reading to understand verbal messages. In this circumstance, the challenge arises when someone else is wearing a mask, i.e. an employee who is wearing a mask and is assisting the individual who is deaf or hard of hearing. While the Mask By-Law exemption does not apply in this case , businesses are encouraged to train employees to properly social distance before removing their mask to allow for lip reading. Those with hearing impairments can also find masks that tie at the back of the head to prevent losing their hearing aids.

Wearing a mask may also trigger trauma responses for some individuals based on their past experiences such as abuse or assault. Again, these disabilities may not exempt a person from the by-law but it nonetheless presents unique challenges for these individuals. Different types of coping strategies can be found online that can help with the anxiety associated with wearing a mask. Some examples include rubbing calming scents on the mask or practicing using the mask at home in a controlled environment.

So, what does this mean when you go out? This by-law applies to “enclosed public spaces” which is defined as the interior area of any building or structure that the public has access to in order to receive or to provide goods or services. This includes restaurants, retail stores, building lobbies, sport facilities, hospitals, and many more. 

Where someone is unable to wear a mask, there are competing interests between the customer’s human rights, and a business’s legal responsibility to create a safe working environment. To ensure that their establishment is safe, a business could refuse service for the safety of their retail workers and staff. In these situations, businesses and customers should collaborate and work together to find mutual solutions. For example, customers could use a curbside pick-up service or have a staff shop on their behalf while the customer waits outside.

The by-law also prohibits the owner or manager of these enclosed public spaces from requiring proof of exemption. It should be noted no official exemption cards have been issued by the Canadian Red Cross, Canadian Human Rights Commission, Ontario Human Rights Commission, or any governmental agency at this time.

A breach of this by-law may result in an enforcement officer issuing a ticket with a fine of $240 for individuals, and $490 for businesses for businesses and property owners who fail to comply. The City is now cracking down on enforcement given the recent surge in positive cases in Ottawa. The by-law’s primary objective is to educate, inform, and gain voluntary compliance, so these fines will be more likely to be imposed where such action is deemed necessary, such as situations where a warning is insufficient, or the person is a repeat offender.


Temporary Mandatory Mask By-law (By-law No. 2020-186): https://ottawa.ca/en/living-ottawa/laws-licences-and-permits/laws/law-z/living-ottawa/laws-licences-and-permits/laws/law-z/temporary-mandatory-mask-law-law-no-2020-186

For more information about the Temporary Mandatory Mask By-law in Ottawa and Frequently Asked Questions: https://www.ottawapublichealth.ca/en/public-health-topics/masks.aspx

For ideas about different coping strategies when experiencing anxiety or trauma responses related to wearing masks, see: https://www.cardinalinnovations.org/Resources/Blog/Anxiety-Coping-Strategies-When-Wearing-a-Face-Mask