In certain provinces, masks and face coverings have now or will soon become mandatory in certain indoor establishments accessible to the public, including in, or in parts of, Ontario, Quebec, Alberta and British Columbia. Recently, in Atlantic Canada, Nova Scotia also announced that masks will be required as of July 31 in enclosed public places.

In the federal sphere, the Labour Program has not imposed mandatory face covering requirements in establishments operated by federally regulated employers and service providers. However, current public health guidance informs that face coverings can be an effective form of protection from the spread of COVID-19, particularly where physical distancing of two metres cannot be maintained.

What are the federal sector’s obligations when it comes to face coverings?

Matters of health are generally regulated  by the provincial jurisdiction, and the public health authority in each province and territory is currently managing the health measures implemented as a result of COVID-19.

The federal Labour Program has advised that all federally regulated employers are expected to comply with provincial health and emergency legislation.  For example, in Toronto and Ottawa, face coverings have been made mandatory by way of a municipal by-law. In Quebec, similar requirements have been enacted under the Public Health Act. And in Western Canada, some municipalities have now or will soon pass by-laws requiring face coverings. As mentioned above, such requirements will also soon be in force in parts of Atlantic Canada. For their part, federal employers, where applicable, are required to follow the rules of their jurisdiction.

Under the Canada Labour Code

The Labour Program has released a guide containing a number of resources for federally regulated employers to help them understand their obligations under the Canada Labour Code (CLC) in light of COVID-19. Part II of the CLC requires employers to protect the health and safety of their employees. Employers must assess workplace hazards like those related to COVID-19 and implement necessary and reasonable preventative and risk mitigation measures. These can include providing personal protective equipment and updating hazard prevention programs to reflect measures taken in response to COVID-19.  

Industry-specific federal guidance

In addition, it should be noted that certain federally regulated industries have specific COVID-19 requirements, such as the airline and the rail industries. In both examples, Transport Canada is monitoring the COVID-19 situation and has issued transportation-related measures and guidance, as follows:

  • Aviation Industry: Transport Canada has issued aviation guidance, which can be found here. Key points in this regard include:
    • Air operators are required to wear a face covering, as long as wearing one is not a safety hazard.
    • Air operators are required to monitor and enforce compliance with the aviation industry guidelines on passenger face coverings.
    • Airlines are responsible for notifying passengers when they purchase their ticket that face coverings are required when physical distancing is not possible.
  • Rail Industry: Transport Canada has issued guidance for the rail industry, which can be found here and include:
    • Ensure rail workers have face coverings and wear them on a risk-based approach.
    • Notify passengers at time of ticket purchase that they may be subject to a health check and to wear a face covering.
    • Prior to passengers boarding the train, have an employee read an announcement about how passengers exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms should not board the train and that Transport Canada has requested all passengers to wear a face covering.

A full list of transportation-related guidance can be found here.

A full list of federal industry-specific guidelines can be found here.

Covid-19 Tracking App

The government of Canada also recently unveiled its new Covid-19 tracking application, Covid Alert. Covid Alert will let people know of possible exposures, in an effort to help prevent the spread of Covid-19. Currently, only people in Ontario can use the Covid Alert to report a diagnosis, but the government is recommending people in all jurisdictions download the application to ensure they are notified if anyone near them has been diagnosed.

The Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada reviewed Covid Alert and is satisfied that the application meets all the federal, provincial and territorial privacy principles. The Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada believes Covid Alert is likely to be effective in reducing the spread of Covid-19 and says that Canadians using the application can do so knowing it includes significant privacy protections.

Take-aways for employers

Where in force, face covering requirements in Canada have been introduced to mitigate the spread of the now infamous COVID-19 pandemic. Absent any specific requirement from federal regulators to cover up, federal employers should be following and, where appropriate, directing their employees to follow all relevant and applicable emergency and health and safety measures in their region.

Indeed, federal employers have important occupational health and safety obligations towards their employees and complying with provincial or local mask and face covering requirements likely fall within that purview.

Alas, federally regulated or not, the takeaway point seems clear: when in doubt, cover up!

The author would like to thank Elizabeth Kazakov & Emma Hamer, summer students, for their assistance in preparing this piece.