Campaigning in a pandemic: Wearing a mask, other choices by candidates

Those seeking votes in the June 2 Ontario general election were thrown into an atmosphere of mixed messages and tough choices.

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Candidates in the first Ontario election held during a pandemic took sharply different approaches on how to protect themselves and others from COVID-19 during the campaign.

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The province has removed most public-health restrictions. Vaccine passports and capacity limits are gone. With a few exceptions like hospitals, masks are not required in indoor public places.

Nepean Liberal candidate Tyler Watt wears a masks while canvassing on May 5.
Nepean Liberal candidate Tyler Watt wears a masks while canvassing on May 5. Photo by Julie Oliver /Postmedia

That left the legal door open for traditional campaigning: large crowds in packed halls screaming for candidates, hugs and handshakes with hundreds of strangers — the very antithesis of behaviour offering protection against an airborne virus. 

The provincial government has emphasized that people must make personal decisions about pandemic risk and adjust their behaviour accordingly.

Candidates were thrown into an atmosphere of mixed messages and tough choices.

Ottawa Public Health, for instance, “strongly recommends” that people wear masks “when in crowded and/or public indoor spaces.”

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It’s a simple way to protect yourself and others around you from the virus, OPH says.

As election campaigns officially began in May, Ottawa Medical Officer of Health Dr. Vera Etches was asking people to lower their risk of COVID-19 by meeting outdoors and keeping gatherings small.

So what was a candidate, seeking to set an example as one of Ontario’s future political leaders, to do?

That varied depending on the party and the personality.

This newspaper asked the major parties for their policies, sent a survey to Ottawa-area candidates about mask use, interviewed a handful of candidates and checked social media feeds to get an idea of the choices made with regard to COVID-19 protections.

Ottawa West-Nepean NDP candidate Chandra Pasma wears a mask while canvassing on April 22.
Ottawa West-Nepean NDP candidate Chandra Pasma wears a mask while canvassing on April 22. Photo by ERROL MCGIHON /Postmedia

The Liberal, NDP and Green parties had COVID-19 policies that went beyond what was required by public health authorities.

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The Liberal Party said its candidates had to wear masks at indoor events when not speaking or eating and were required to be fully vaccinated, spokesperson Will Wuehr said.

The New Democratic Party required candidates and volunteers to wear masks both indoors at public events and while door knocking, during which they were also asked to be mindful of social distancing, and to be fully vaccinated, spokesperson Robin Nieto said.

Candidates for The Green Party took precautions like masking and physical distancing at indoor events and used outdoor spaces whenever possible, spokesperson Darren Elias said.

Progressive Conservative Party candidates followed public health guidelines, said spokesperson Alexandra Hilkene said.

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In Ottawa, several candidates interviewed added their own variations in addition to what was required by the parties.

For instance, Chandra Pasma, running for the NDP in Ottawa West-Nepean, said her volunteers were asked to wear medical masks when canvassing indoors at apartments and condos because they provided more protection than cloth masks. Like some other candidates interviewed, she provided masks for volunteers who needed them.

At her campaign headquarters, a contact list was maintained of volunteers and when they worked so they could be notified if anyone reported a case of COVID-19, Pasma said.

Carleton riding Conservative candidate Goldie Ghamari wears a mask while visiting Vimy Ridge Public School on April 21.
Carleton riding Conservative candidate Goldie Ghamari wears a mask while visiting Vimy Ridge Public School on April 21. Photo by Tony Caldwell /Postmedia

She said she didn’t plan any large, crowded indoor events that would be typical of an election campaign.

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Nonetheless, Pasma and other candidates were exposed to thousands of people, if only briefly, during the campaign. Did she worry about getting COVID-19?

“Absolutely,” Pasma said. “But we did take a lot of precautions.

“The last thing you can afford in the middle of a campaign is to come down with COVID … and the last thing we want is to give voters COVID, not knowing who is immunocompromised or who lives with someone who is immunocompromised. Safety is paramount.”

Both NDP Leader Andrea Horwath and Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner contracted COVID-19 during the campaign. They shifted to virtual events while in isolation.

In Nepean riding, Liberal candidate Tyler Watt said he wore a mask at indoor public events — required by his party — and while canvassing.

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“Although we are outside, we do it out of respect for people at the door because we don’t know what  people’s situation is, what their comfort level is, so we show up fully masked at the door.”

Few constituents commented on mask use, one way or the other, Watt said. “There has been no negative reaction to us wearing a mask.  I think people are pretty respectful that it’s your choice at this point.”

Watt wore two masks: a surgical mask for protection and a cloth mask saying “Vote” on top because he liked the logo.

“I try to make an effort to stay physically distanced as best as I can at events with lots of people,” he said.

Liberal candidate Katie Gibbs in Ottawa Centre said she chose her campaign headquarters partly because it had a large parking lot that could be used for outdoor events. She made HEPA air filters for the office herself.

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Gibbs said she did not routinely wear a mask while knocking on doors because the chance of transmitting the virus outdoors was low.

However, if someone answering the door wore a mask, she put one on, too, Gibbs said.

Her NDP competitor in the riding, incumbent MPP Joel Harden, followed his party’s policy of masking up indoors and while canvassing.

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Several candidates, including Conservative Goldie Ghamari, the incumbent MPP in Carleton riding, described their approach to door-knocking in the same way.

Ghamari said she would knock on a door, then take a big step back when it was opened in order to keep physical distance. She carried a mask with her to don if the person answering the door was wearing one.

Conservative candidates had more leeway for personal choice because the party did not require them to go beyond public health guidelines.

Conservative candidate Lisa MacLeod in Nepean riding, the incumbent MPP and a minister in the Doug Ford government, did not respond to this newspaper’s survey on mask use. Attempts to arrange an interview with her over the past month were unsuccessful.

Photographs posted on MacLeod’s social media feeds showed her at her campaign headquarters and canvassing without a mask.

A Facebook video and photographs on Twitter posted by MacLeod of her campaign kickoff showed her walking unmasked through a crowd of people, offering hugs and high-fives, at the indoor event.

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At his campaign kickoff in Ottawa West-Nepean, Conservative candidate Jeremy Roberts, the incumbent MPP, posted a photo on social media showing him wearing a mask.

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