OTTAWA -- The city's transit commission has approved a plan to make masks mandatory for all customers and drivers starting June 15.

The transit commission voted 10-1 Monday to approve the COVID-19 recovery plan and the plan to make masks mandatory on OC Transpo starting June 15. Citizen commissioner Michael Olsen attempted to have the recovery plan and the mask rule voted on separately, because he was opposed to mandatory masks, but his request was denied by Transit Chair Coun. Allan Hubley. Olsen, subsequently, voted against the plan. 

The plan now goes before full City Council, which will meet June 10.

No mask police

The commission meeting heard the mandatory mask policy will be enforced through conversation and education, rather than fines to start.

Speaking to the commission meeting, held on Zoom on Monday, transportation general manger John Manconi said front-line staff would be trained to engage customers in conversation about the mask policy when it officially launches.

Citizen transit commissioner Sarah Wright-Gilbert asked what the level of enforcement on the mandatory policy would be.

"By making a policy mandatory, there is an expectation from the public that there will be enforcement," she said. "Will there be people approaching customers saying, 'You're not wearing a mask. Did you know you should be wearing a mask?'"

Wright-Gilbert said she was concerned for the safety of the public and OC Transpo staff, should arguments around the mask policy break out.

"The mask issue is somewhat divisive—it shouldn't be, but it is, unfortunately," she said.

It was an issue the president of the local Almagamated Transit Union also brought up recently.

Manconi said staff will be trained to discuss the mask policy with customers. Staff will also have a small number of disposable masks available that they can hand out to customers in need.

"We're not going to have mask police. Yes, we can enforce fines but that's not what we're going to be doing," Manconi said. "The plan is the education piece to the customers and the employees. It's about ensuring that everybody knows that not everyone can wear a mask and how to identify those things and having those discussions. Being very collaborative is the approach we're taking.

"Going out with a heavy hand and fining people in the early parts of this is not our intention."

Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Manconi said he would consider having to fine anyone a failure on OC Transpo's part to communicate its mask plan to riders.

"We're not going to fine anyone. Communication is our focus. If, after many days and weeks, there's a blatant 'I'm not doing this' attitude we might get to that. We're not there yet. I believe 99.9 per cent of the population will understand the message," he said.

The transit commission has also heard that OC Transpo is working on a partnership with the United Way to sell a limited number of masks at key stations for a small cost.

Coun. Shawn Menard asked whether anyone without a mask would be refused boarding. Manconi said no.

"Our bus operators are not going to be refusing entry of anybody into our system," Manconi said. "That's coupled with the training that someone may have an invisible disability you may not know about and we're going to take people at their word."

About 200,000 masks will be available from ambassadors and staff at transit stations for people who are not able to get masks. Manconi said he hopes they don't run out quickly because ordering more can be difficult.

"They're non-surgical masks and there is a supply demand issue," Manconi said. "We put in that order a couple weeks ago. If we see that the 200,000 masks disappear on day one, we obviously have a problem and the educational campaign didn't work."

Manconi also stressed that the masks that will be handed out are not reusable.

Masks will be mandatory for bus drivers and train operators as well. OC Transpo operators who cannot wear masks for medical reasons will be placed on other duties, Manconi told reporters.

"Employees are responsible for telling us if they can't wear a mask. So far, none have," Manconi said. "We've had some fitting issues with the masks we're making mandatory but we're working with them. If an operator can't wear a mask, we'll put them on other duties. We need to have masks on the bus."